Clarence Thomas, arguably the most conservative justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, may be known for his silence on the bench during oral arguments, but now he’s speaking out.
In an upcoming documentary, “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words,” Thomas describes his faith, his political awakening, his judicial philosophy, and the role race has played in his life, offering viewers rare insight into the mind of a justice known for his reticence on the public stage.
“‘This is the wrong black guy, he has to be destroyed,'” Thomas says at one point in the film, characterizing those who opposed his nomination to the Supreme Court nomination in 1991. “Just say it. And now at least we’re honest with each other.” Remembering the moment that Anita Hill’s allegations that he had sexually harassed her were made public, Thomas says, that’s when “all heck broke loose.”
The new documentary, which TIME saw in an intimate advance screening, will be released in 2020 and set to air on PBS in May. It was made by Manifold Productions, which is led by Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker who has worked with Steve Bannon. President Donald Trump nominated Pack to be the head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The film is largely sympathetic to Thomas. On its website, Manifold Productions says the purpose of the movie is to “tell the Clarence Thomas story truly and fully, without cover-ups or distortions.” Thomas and his wife Virginia are the only people whose interviews appear in the film. (Other voices, including Hill’s, are included in old footage.)
Pack interviewed Thomas for more than 30 hours over a six month period. Speaking after a screening on Oct. 22, he said he worried that including other original interviews would cause him to “lose Justice Thomas’s voice.” “I felt it would also let viewers make up their own mind,” Pack says. “My deal with the audience was to let Justice Thomas tell his story and be fair to his story.”
Much of the film addresses the justice’s upbringing, which brought him from poverty in rural Georgia to the highest court in the land, and tracks his personal and political transitions along the way.
But a significant section of the movie also revisits Thomas’s contentious confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was at the time overseen by then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who is now running for president. “One of the things you do in hearings is you have to sit there and look attentively at people you know have no idea what they’re talking about,” Thomas says, in reference to a line of questioning from Biden.
“Most of my opponents on the Judiciary Committee cared about only one thing: how would I rule on abortion rights?” Thomas says. “You really didn’t matter, and your life didn’t matter. What mattered was what they wanted. And what they wanted was this particular issue.”
Since joining the Supreme Court, Thomas has voted repeatedly to roll back abortion rights and has urged the court to reconsider Roe v. Wade and other landmark abortion cases. “Our abortion jurisprudence has spiraled out of control,” he wrote in 2019.
It was after the first round of hearings during which Democratic senators pressed him on his judicial philosophy and abortion that Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her at work. Thomas unequivocally denied each of her allegations then—and he does so again in the documentary.
In the film, he recalls feeling “deflated” when the FBI first came to his house and asked him about Hill’s allegations, and describes the ensuing media onslaught as him being “literally under siege.” “Oh God, no,” Thomas says when Pack asks him whether he watched Hill’s testimony.
Thomas says his experience in the hearings made him realize that he had been expecting a certain type of person—as he described them, the ‘bigot, Klansman, and rural sheriff’—to hold him back over the course of his life. But the confirmation hearing changed his mind. “It turned out that through all of that, ultimately the biggest impediment was the modern day liberal,” he says.
Thomas says he was in the bathtub when the Senate voted on October 15, 1991 to confirm him to the Supreme Court. “My reaction is still pretty much the way it is now,” Thomas says. “I mean, whoop-dee-damn-doo. I wasn’t really all that interested in it.”
“The idea was to get rid of me,” Thomas says, describing attempts to derail his nomination. “And then after I was there, it was to undermine me.”
Pack says his on-camera interviews with Thomas ended before Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing in September 2018 when Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault. But Pack says Thomas had declined to wade into questions about the #MeToo movement over the course of their interviews.
Thomas also speaks about the difficulty he says he has experienced being a prominent black conservative. “There’s different sets of rules for different people,” Thomas says. “If you criticize a black person who’s more liberal, you’re a racist. Whereas you can do whatever to me, or to now [HUD Secretary] Ben Carson, and that’s fine, because you’re not really black because you’re not doing what we expect black people to do.”
Thomas speaks in the film about some of the pillars of his life, including his grandfather who raised him, his religion, and his belief in the principles of the Constitution. He also talks about his judicial philosophy, and why he almost never asks a single question during oral arguments. “We are judges, not advocates,” Thomas says. “The referee in the game should not be a participant in the game.”
At a low moment in his life, before he becomes a judge, Thomas says he had a reckoning with his purpose and his values. “For what will you die?” he remembers asking himself. “Is there something in life you would die for? What about your principles?”
Thomas says he decided then that the principles his grandfather raised him with and the principles of this country were worth dying for—and those would shape how he lived.