© 2023 WLRN
MIAMI | SOUTH FLORIDA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

FRONTLINE traces the 'ambition and revenge' driving SCOTUS Justice Clarence Thomas

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is the most senior member of the Conservative supermajority that now dominates the court, giving him a level of influence he'd never seen in his 32 years as an associate justice. But controversy has swirled around Thomas and his wife, Ginni, in recent weeks, with revelations by the investigative news site ProPublica that a conservative Texas billionaire has lavished Thomas with expensive vacations and other financial benefits for many years, benefits that were never reported on Thomas' financial disclosure forms. Those benefits included trips on private jets and a luxury yacht, the purchase of and renovations to the home Clarence Thomas' mother lives in and private school tuition for a grandnephew of Clarence Thomas.

Our guest today is veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk, who's the director, co-writer and co-producer of a new "Frontline" documentary about the lives and formative influences on Clarence and Ginni Thomas and their paths to power in Washington. Michael Kirk was the original senior producer of the PBS "Frontline" documentary series in the 1980s. He's written and directed more than 100 hours of "Frontline" documentaries and has won four Peabody Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards, two George Polk Awards and 16 Emmy Awards. His new documentary titled "Clarence And Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court" is available to stream for free on YouTube, "Frontline's" website and in the PBS app.

Michael Kirk, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

MICHAEL KIRK: It's great to be here, Dave. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: So let's talk about, you know, the early life of Clarence Thomas. You know, it's hard to witness the hardship that he suffered as a child and not have some sympathy for him. He was born in Pin Point, Ga. Tell us about the community and his relationship with his family in those early years.

KIRK: Pin Point is on the outskirts of Savannah, Ga. This is Savannah, Ga., in the 1950s as Clarence is growing up - very Jim Crow South, very racist undercurrents in everything Clarence would have done coming from Pin Point into Savannah or even in Pin Point, which was largely a fishing village. The vast majority of people there are Black. They speak a kind of dialect of people who were slaves - that had slavery imposed on them all those generations ago. And it's a kind of dialect called Geechee - Gullah Geechee. And it has a little bit of a French flavor, almost like Creole down in Louisiana. He lived about the worst kind of life you could imagine for a little kid, even in that time - poverty, a father who was gone, so a fatherless life, mother barely scraping by, and not even, really, in lots of ways.

And Clarence and his little brother were - that lived in - just the way Clarence describes it in his book, which we use sections from, it - just horrible - no running water, no toilet in the place they lived. And on top of the Jim Crow parts of the white racism, there was also, as we discovered, kind of to my surprise, this idea that his friends talk about the idea of racism inside the Black community as being even more corrosive than white racism in the - on the streets of Savannah, 'cause you could avoid it if you didn't go into Savannah. But in your neighborhood, if you were very Black, and as he describes himself, with a broad nose and curly hair, you were subject to failing what they called the brown-bag test. And the kids just mocked him with the cruelest insult they could come up with, which was ABC - America's Blackest Child.

DAVIES: So at some point, you report that his mom gave the boys up. She simply couldn't manage it. And they went to live with their grandfather, also in Savannah, who was less poor. But it was a hard life in other ways. Tell us about that.

KIRK: Her father was a tough guy, also carried a lot of the racism about the internal racism inside the Black world of Savannah and Pin Point, ran a fuel oil business, I think ice and coal kind of business, where in the summer, you deliver ice, and in the winter, you deliver fuel oil in a kind of old truck. And he made a pretty good living compared to a lot of other people, as I say, very opinionated, strong Catholic, stern Catholic, didn't want the boys, didn't want his daughter to bring the boys there. But his wife at the time, not Clarence's mom's mother or their natural - their biological grandmother, but that woman that was married to Clarence's grandfather really wanted the kids. And they gave them something the kids had never really had - running water. They could take a bath, they could use a toilet, and they could go to public school in the neighborhood, so - had to do a lot of work for his grandfather, had to toe the line, but at the same time, had at least the basics of what the rest of us would recognize as a life and a lifestyle that involved food and sleep and shelter and - if not love.

DAVIES: So he ends up going to a high school seminary where he lived in a dormitory where there were only two Black students. The rest of them were white. He was - had ambitions to become a priest. Was that the plan?

KIRK: Well, the nuns were the ones who thought they saw that spark. One of the things I learned from going to Catholic school and being from a Catholic family in a kind of rural area was every family was looking for a vocation in their family. And you'd pray - in my family, we'd pray after dinner for a vocation among my brothers and me. And in Clarence's world, the nuns were looking for the first Black priest for Savannah, and Clarence got the seal of approval from Sister Mary Virgilius and others. This was going to be - and they told him this, and they told everybody this - this was going to be the first Black priest, and his name was going to be Clarence Thomas.

DAVIES: And so living in this dormitory with a bunch of white boys, that's kind of an unusual arrangement for kids back in the '50s. What was that experience like for him?

KIRK: He had never really been around white people in this way, in the sense that you're sleeping in a room with 20 others or 15 others or maybe more, eating together, hanging around. Clarence didn't exactly have a plethora of social skills and was mocked and ridiculed. And all you have to do is look closely at the pictures that we've found of him in classes and at the seminary and as a little child, and he has this pained look. Some of it is from that dialect accent he had, some of it is because he's the only Black student there and this is the racist Deep South in the late 1950s, early '60s, all the way through that very - the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. All of that is happening around him. And Clarence is not smiling in virtually any of those pictures.

And he is the subject of derision and mocking and taunts at night. Clarence, smile so we can see you. Certainly didn't surprise me to hear the darkest racial names you could imagine called out to him all night long to keep him awake. And then there was one critical moment when Clarence knew, OK, I've got to get out of here. And that was the assassination, the murder of Martin Luther King, when he heard a white seminarian say King had not been murdered - had not died yet. And the seminarian said, I hope the SOB dies. And for Clarence - that was the high school student Clarence - that was the final straw.

DAVIES: So he left the seminary and went back to live with his grandfather, who did not particularly welcome that decision.

KIRK: He basically told him to go back out the door. He was not welcome there. His feelings and his, I think, probably - I hate to get in his grandfather's head. But I - others talk about it in a way that it was - that he was so proud that Clarence might end up being the Black priest of Savannah. And when Clarence didn't cut it, well, that was against the rules as far as his grandfather was concerned. You always cut it when the going gets rough, the rough get going, or the tough gets going, or whatever the saying is. That was certainly the way he felt, and he felt that Clarence had betrayed him. And basically, he said to Clarence, you're going to end up just like your no-good father. You're no good at school. You can't finish anything. Go out and feel what it's like to be out in the world alone.

And so, you know, in his teens, Clarence Thomas can't live with his mom and is out on his own to find ways to make a living, to eat, to find a meal, to find a flush toilet again - all the things that Clarence Thomas had become kind of used to. He now had to start over. It was back at zero. And he was a teenager. And his grandfather and he never really mended that breach after that.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Kirk. He is an award-winning filmmaker. His documentary, "Clarence And Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court," is available for streaming on YouTube, "Frontline's" website and in the PBS app. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with filmmaker Michael Kirk. His new Frontline documentary, "Clarence And Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power In The Supreme Court" is available for streaming on YouTube, "Frontline's" website and the PBS app. So Clarence Thomas eventually gets a scholarship to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, and there he becomes a militant activist. I mean, he was very, very troubled by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, which occurred a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King. How - what shape did his activism take?

KIRK: So here's a guy who never really has hung out with a group of like-minded, maybe even open-minded, Black kids his age, and he goes off to Holy Cross. And there's 2,000 white kids, all Catholics, and 28 Black students, the first kind of real class or among the first classes of affirmative action class at Holy Cross - that it was an idea sort of sweeping the country at the time. This is 1968, 1969. Clarence sees the explosion in the streets, the fights that are happening about the war in Vietnam, the fights that are happening around the civil rights crisis, the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. And he - there he is living with all these other angry and frustrated - self-described angry and frustrated - Black men, three or four of whom we've interviewed.

And in that process, Clarence really finds an identity, and the identity is the Black Panther movement. He adopts the clothing, the hairstyle, the combat boots, the - you know, the military-style uniform, wears a beret and finds an idol. And the idol turns out to be Malcolm X. And it is Malcolm's speeches, Malcolm's arguments for separatism, Malcolm's stridence and strength that Clarence is drawn to. He - the way he tells the story, or the way people who know him tell the story, is that Clarence decides to memorize many of Malcolm's speeches and is himself a sort of self-styled campus radical, believing, I think, that this was a way to fix the world, that he had - he would find acceptance in the anti-war and pro-civil-rights movements.

DAVIES: In his junior year at Holy Cross, Clarence Thomas went to a protest in Cambridge, Mass., where Harvard students were protesting at the time. It got pretty lively. What happened? And what was the effect?

KIRK: He and some of his friends from their group at Holy Cross drove the 40 miles down to Harvard Square, had drank a lot of beer, had joined a march. There's 31 colleges and universities in Massachusetts, so there are a lot of people on the streets that night marching toward Harvard Square from Boston Common. And it all got out of control. It was glass broke, then arguments with the police, then tear gas, then the usual melees, but much - on a much larger scale than anybody expected that had happened certainly previously. And while those kind of things were breaking out every night, Clarence leaves Cambridge at 4 in the morning, gets back to campus and has a kind of epiphany where he says to himself - at least in his book, this is what he reports - he says to himself, why was I doing that? What was I doing? I came so close to being arrested - I think 40 students had been arrested - so close to ruining my life, and for what?

So he has this kind of crisis, and instead of becoming more radicalized, he decides to shed the Panther, the uniform, put on a coat and tie at times. You could find Clarence in the library, not out on the streets or anything like that. And he finishes college near the top of his class with a 3.75 grade point. He's obviously a super-bright guy. He applies himself and does very, very well and manages to graduate from Holy Cross - the first person in his family to do so. And his grandfather, of course, does not come to the ceremony.

DAVIES: That's a pretty radical turn, to go from somebody who's wearing, you know, fatigues and army books and has a poster of Malcolm X in his room to buckling down and being a more conventional student. Did you talk to folks or did you get insights from Thomas' book about whether he changed his thinking about the United States and race relations and, you know, the big issues that had radicalized him?

KIRK: The people we talked to, one of them, a friend of Clarence Thomas, Glenn Loury, also a Black academic and a very well-known speaker and a conservative Black man, Glenn Loury - one of the things that Glenn says is it's very hard to fix an ideology to Clarence Thomas. And it was equally hard then, or this is just another great example of it. It's almost an ideology-free zone around him. You never - you go back - if you're a filmmaker or a biographer or a friend and you go back and look at Clarence Thomas' things he said and things that he acted on looking for a political - hints of a political ideology, and it is very, very, very complicated and not strongly articulated by Thomas in terms of why does he move away from the idea of separatism and other stalwart phrases or long-standing phrases of a lot of the Black radicals at the time.

He was there but not really there, thinking about it, defending it but not really. But one thing was becoming obvious. He was not happy about the implications of affirmative action, and it was among the first times that he would, of course, throughout his life be a recipient, a beneficiary of what became known as affirmative action. But, at the time, he - the first strong feelings of do I belong here? Why am I here? Am I here for merit, or am I here only because I'm Black? And if so, will I spend the rest of my life with an asterisk next to my name that says early beneficiary of, you know, affirmative action?

DAVIES: So his objection to affirmative action was that he was perceived as someone who didn't earn his way - right? - that he was getting preferential treatment?

KIRK: Even though he demonstrated that he had earned his way with his grades and his hard work. So you can posit a theory that he decides, I'm going to go out and make contributions - after the so-called riot in Harvard Square - is it possible that he went back to school and said to himself, I - you know, that was a no-win deal for me? I want to make my name. I want to make a contribution. I want to do something. And I want to prove that I belong in this world.

And I think that is a sort of strain of Clarence Thomas, which is an ambition that grows out of such a strong desire to find acceptance and to, in a way, live down the challenge his grandfather gave him when he said, you're just like your no-good dad. You're never going to amount to anything. I think if there was an ideology for Clarence Thomas around that time, it might not be political, but it certainly was a mixture of ambition and revenge.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Kirk. He's an award-winning filmmaker. His documentary, "Clarence And Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court" is available to stream for free on YouTube, "Frontline's" website and the PBS app. He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "SWITCH BLADE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Our guest is veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk, whose latest work is a PBS Frontline documentary about the lives and influences on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni, a conservative political activist. The investigative news site ProPublica has published stories recently about luxury vacations and other financial benefits the couple received from a wealthy Texas businessman, benefits that were not reported on Thomas's financial disclosure forms. Kirk's documentary, "Clarence and Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court," is available to stream for free on YouTube, Frontline's website and the PBS app.

So Clarence Thomas gets a scholarship to Yale Law School, an elite institution with a lot of very strong traditions, one of very - you know, a smattering of Black students there. How does he fit in? What is life like for him?

KIRK: I think he really is surprised at - I mean, he thinks what he's getting is a ticket to ride. You get a law degree from Yale, you're going to become a big-time lawyer in New York City, on Wall Street and make a lot of money. That was his ambition. That was his reason for doing it. And that was his expectation.

He was surprised by what it was like to be there. You're surrounded by - I mean, one of his - his married student housing roommate was John Bolton. Bill and Hillary Clinton were one class ahead of him but in a lot of his classes. As Bolton tells us, it was a place where people expected to run the world someday, and they were just there gathering whatever they needed to do that. Well, that was certainly not the case for Clarence Thomas.

And he was heartbroken when he discovered once again, so obviously to him, that the students did not believe that he belonged there because of affirmative action. And in some cases, even the professors thought he was getting a free pass. He basically never talked in classes or anything like that. He was in some form of shell shock during his years at Yale Law School.

DAVIES: And at the end, when folks were getting, you know, invitations to join, you know, as associates in big law firms, he didn't get offers. And you report that he kept these rejection letters - what? - as kind of a motivation.

KIRK: Exactly. I mean, even today, this is a man who - for whom revenge is one response to the lack of acceptance of him and his efforts. So, yes, when he doesn't - he arrives at what he thinks of as the pinnacle, he graduates from Yale Law School and he realizes it's not going to yield any kind of a job that he had aspirations for. He says he has the degree, the Yale Law School degree, framed with a 10-cent price - one of those stickers that says 10 cents - and he stuck it on the diploma frame and said, that's basically what that Yale Law School degree was worth to me.

DAVIES: So he ends up taking a different road. Rather than corporate law, government service is an avenue that he can advance in, as it turns out. He becomes a staff lawyer for the attorney general of Missouri, John Danforth, who then goes to the United States Senate, and that takes Clarence Thomas to Washington. And then, of course, in 1980, Ronald Reagan is elected president, bringing in a conservative wave to Washington. Does Clarence Thomas sort of try and ride that wave? Does he cultivate friends among conservatives?

KIRK: Yes, it's - you're in government. You work for Danforth, who's a conservative. You've started to become interested in conservative politics. You've reached out to your former housemate, John Bolton, and he asks Bolton for some conservative texts he can read. He's obviously eyeing a position getting some kind of a high-visibility job inside the Reagan administration.

He's in his early 30s now. And one person tells us that he tries to join the conservative Reagan revolution because the line is shorter for Black people on that side, on the Republican side. Over on the Democratic side, lots of Black people in line to get good jobs, but in the conservative Republican world, Clarence Thomas - if he joins that line, it's a very short line. And he does do that. And he is rewarded by the Reagan administration for his willingness to step up and defend Reagan. Whenever Reagan would be called racist or whenever a policy might be called racist, it is Clarence Thomas who they put forward performing the task of defender of Reagan's racial equality instincts.

DAVIES: He gets a job in the Education Department and then eventually is appointed by Reagan head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - where he would meet Anita Hill, who would figure prominently in his life later - held that post for eight years. You spoke with a woman that he had dated and some other folks there. What picture did you get of Clarence Thomas as head of the EEOC?

KIRK: The way they tell the story - these are Black women. The way they tell the story is Clarence was kind of unleashed. Now he's - for the first time, he's in power. Now for the first time he can - and ironically, he runs the Equal Opportunity Commission - he turns out to be very kind of abusive to primarily Black people, but also there's a lot of ageism involved in some of his comments.

The way they tell the story, he's trying to appeal to the white Reagan staffers and conservatives by being the Black guy who's the first to tell a kind of racially tinted joke or use an unkind phrase, proving to them that he can be trusted. He's not one of these strident Black men, angry, strident Black men or whatever they used to call people who would step up and shake their fist at the Reagan administration. And that was - Clarence was quite the opposite. That's the way they tell the story. He's very sexist. He asks the women, the way they tell it, you know, what was your bra size? And just on and on and on like that - unseemly uses of his authority.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, it's a picture of a bully in a way. And, you know, I have to say, anybody who runs a big organization, we'll find some people that don't like him. You know, you make decisions. Did anybody have anything good to say about him at the EEOC?

KIRK: I think there were some things that he - I mean, he was the person who attacked and tried to manage, maneuver, sandpaper, take off the rough edges, whatever you want, or the powerful parts of affirmative action. And that was one of his primary goals. And he was quite good at it. And his ideology, his conservative ideology was forming up around this time. And other conservatives said he was with the president. There's a scene in the film where Ronald Reagan gives him a jar of jelly beans for his birthday in the Oval Office. And you can see Clarence just - it was as if he was with a rock star or somebody he'd idolized forever. He's - you can see who Clarence is and how he's approaching who he wants to be in that world, and he does it quite successfully.

DAVIES: You said he was taking the rough edges off of affirmative action - meaning what?

KIRK: He was trying to make it more palatable and have kind of less teeth. And he would defend efforts to challenge it. He would - he hated the idea that - and tried everything he could do to not enforce - the idea of quotas, a word that he discovered was - could be quite successfully used. We don't want quotas. We're not up about - this is not about quotas. And that's, of course, the clarion cry for a lot of white people who didn't like affirmative action either, and big businesses and others.

So Clarence Thomas at the time was a spokesman tasked with going on C-Span and other venues, meeting with evangelicals, lots of other things to make who he was and what his opinions were about this and therefore what Ronald Reagan's opinions were about something like affirmative action, make it more plausible and easier to accept for people by taking the teeth right out of it.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Kirk. He's an award-winning filmmaker. His documentary, "Clarence And Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court," is available to stream on YouTube, Frontline's website and the PBS app. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "IOWA TAKEN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk. His latest work is a PBS Frontline documentary about the lives and influences on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni, a conservative political activist. It's called "Clarence and Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court," and it's available to stream for free on YouTube, Frontline's website and the PBS app.

So in 1991, Thurgood Marshall, the only Black member of the Supreme Court, retires and George Herbert Walker Bush picks Clarence Thomas to take his place as an associate justice. The confirmation hearings and the accusation by law professor Anita Hill of sexual harassment when she had worked for Thomas are among the best-known testimony ever given at a confirmation hearing for a justice. It was incredibly gripping, as was Clarence Thomas' angry response, denying everything. Without going through it all again - people will remember it - what do you think people should know about this episode that is maybe not so well known or may not have gotten the attention it deserved?

KIRK: I think the extent to which he really got slammed and surprised by Anita Hill's allegations, especially at the beginning when they hit the news but before the hearings. Clarence basically collapsed. We have visibility into what happened with him, the deep collapse. We have visibility through Senator Jack Danforth, who talked to us for a long time about his relationship with Clarence. And Danforth goes out to Thomas' house as the news is breaking, and Thomas is just ruined.

It's like - imagine you've created this kind of edifice-like life, trying to follow all these rules that you didn't know existed, and now you've succeeded. You feel you've really succeeded. And then this - out of the blue, this moment happens, and you're - everything is blowing up in your face. To...

DAVIES: And just for listeners here, this is - the first part of the hearing went smoothly enough. He was sailing to confirmation. And then word of Anita Hill's allegations come to light. This is before the actual testimony and hearings. And Danforth goes to visit Clarence Thomas, right? And...

KIRK: Yes.

DAVIES: ...This is like nothing he'd ever seen.

KIRK: It's very interesting. And because of that access with Danforth and an interview with Alan Simpson, a Wyoming senator, another conservative Republican, we can follow what happened with Thomas in that period of the testimony of Anita Hill, what she alleged, Thomas' reaction, the private meeting inside Danforth's office before Thomas comes back to answer the charges in the hearing room where his anger is fed, he's looking for a way to respond, and you are there when you watch the idea of what he would eventually call one of the most famous phrases ever from congressional testimony, a high-tech lynching of an uppity Black person. It's the process between Ginni and Clarence at that moment as he decides to not fold, but to come back fighting. For me, understanding what was going on behind the scenes with this character we followed all the way from Pin Point as a little boy was really remarkable.

DAVIES: Didn't Danforth say when he went to his house he found Clarence - was it in a fetal position, wasn't eating, just kind of non-functional?

KIRK: Yes, laying on the bed, sobbing, believing his life was over.

DAVIES: Wow. We should just note that, you know, Thomas defiantly denied the charges. He was confirmed. But there were other women who would have - could have offered corroborating evidence that were never called. We learned in the documentary that this affected him deeply - Clarence Thomas - in terms of his media consumption habits. This was kind of hard to believe. Describe this.

KIRK: After he gets confirmed 52 to 48 and becomes a Supreme Court justice - but there are many aftershocks that occur. One of the most interesting to me was that he canceled his subscription to The Washington Post. He didn't read The New York Times. He said out loud that he was now going to stop consuming any national media at all. So if that's true, how does he get information? And people we talked to said he relies primarily on two sources. One was Ginni, his best friend, his wife, who herself is into conspiracy theories and lots of other things. She was his primary resource of what was going on in the country. This is a Supreme Court justice whose primary reference point for cultural events and political events in the country was his wife, Ginni, and a man who would become his great best friend, a wealthy, rich white man named Rush Limbaugh. And he and Limbaugh became inseparable, kind of really, really close friends during that time. So I guess you could assert most of the information that Clarence Thomas was receiving about what was going on in the country was coming from Rush Limbaugh and Ginni Thomas, his wife.

DAVIES: Yeah, he would have staff tape the Rush Limbaugh broadcasts that he missed so he could listen to them later at a time when the technology wasn't like it is today. He also enters a whole new set of associations, particularly with wealthy white conservatives. And, I think, here's where the recent reporting by ProPublica about his relationship with Harlan Crow, the Texas billionaire, comes into focus.

I mean, it was reported, you know, by the Times and others somewhat earlier. But what's interesting about the new reporting is that this relationship of regular luxury vacation and trips goes back a long, long time. This is an association that really lasted a long time. Just give us a sense of what that relationship was like and what the benefits were to Clarence Thomas.

KIRK: So for a couple of decades, a justice of the United States Supreme Court and his wife were treated to hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of lavish vacations, gifts - in one case, $500,000 given to a PAC or a group that Ginni was involved with, a kind of outgrowth of the Tea Party, where Ginni was also given a salary of $120,000, as ProPublica reported. They traveled the world in the jet. They were - he was often alone with Harlan Crow. You know, they went to Indonesia. They would - he had a - Crow has a huge yacht. They saw the world. He lived - Supreme Court justices don't make that much money by comparison to other very successful lawyers. But he certainly traveled and experienced vacations and the luxuries of a very wealthy person thanks to his benefactor, Harlan Crow. And he never reported any of it.

DAVIES: Of course, it's unseemly to be accepting all that free stuff. I guess there's also the question of whether this contact with Harlan Crow represented a conflict of interest or an appearance of conflict for a justice who has to, you know, weigh all these consequential cases. What does the record show about this?

KIRK: Well, it's, you know - you know, Dave, from all your reporting for all these years, finding a quid pro quo in a moment like this, in an issue like this, very, very hard to nail down, well, it was this piece of legislation. It was this - whatever. It's different than that, I think. It's - you're in the conversation with a justice of the Supreme Court. And you're alone. And you're talking about the issues of the day and maybe the things that affect your business.

I - when I interviewed the ProPublica reporters, I said, what happens when somebody's alone with a Supreme Court justice on a long flight to Indonesia or up at a fishing lodge and you're the head of the Federalist Society, like Leonard Leo or somebody? What are you talking to Clarence Thomas about? Why have him in the group? And they said that's exactly the problem. The problem is not some specific piece of legislation or a case. Although, that may exist and may come forward at some moment. But it is the environment and the perception of a conflict of interest that is really the only currency the justices actually have as being, you know, independent of the pressures of politics.

We like to believe they are leaders who are unsullied by the ugly debates that are on television and in the newspapers, and happening on the floor of the House and the Senate and run over by the White House. The presumption is that they are different than that. And when something like this comes to light, it's not so much what was the specific piece of legislation or the case that he went the other way on. It's the perception that is most in play there and the most dangerous consequence of people discovering just how grand his relationship in financial and other terms was with Harlan Crow.

DAVIES: We're speaking with filmmaker Michael Kirk. His new documentary, "Clarence And Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court," can be seen on YouTube, on "Frontline's" website and the PBS app. We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SELF-PORTRAIT IN THREE COLORS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with filmmaker Michael Kirk. His latest work is a PBS "Frontline" documentary about the lives and influences on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni. It's called "Clarence And Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court."

Clarence Thomas' position on the court now is different now that, you know, Donald Trump has appointed three conservative justices, who have a supermajority. And, you know, Clarence Thomas' record includes, you know, votes to weaken the Voting Rights Act. He's spoken out against affirmative action. And, you know, one of the things that you address in the documentary is how other African Americans view him. And you - one of the people that you spoke to, Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, said that he is derided in the Black community. And he says that there's an expression for doing a Clarence Thomas, meaning that that's when someone uses their Blackness to achieve a place of power and then turns their back on the Black community. And then you play a clip from an old friend of Clarence Thomas, Glenn Loury, who is a respected professor of economics at Brown, who had his own history with a lot of these issues. He was - has been conservative in much of his career. Here's what he says about that idea that Thomas is regarded as, you know, a traitor.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CLARENCE AND GINNI THOMAS: POLITICS, POWER AND THE SUPREME COURT")

GLENN LOURY: You want to be thought of as a good Black man or woman, not as a traitor or a turncoat, a sellout. On the other hand, the idea that I would think for myself and I won't be told what to think just because of the color of my skin is one that very powerfully animated Clarence Thomas. If somebody is going to tell me I'm not Black because, thinking for myself, I arrived at certain conclusions that they didn't like - you question my authenticity? You question my legitimacy? I take umbrage at that. I don't appreciate that.

DAVIES: That's Glenn Loury from the documentary "Clarence And Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court," which is directed by our guest, Michael Kirk.

You know, what I guess I'm getting at with those parts of the documentary is, what really motivates Clarence Thomas? And you talked to so many people. I mean, is it ambition? Is it anger? Is it sincere belief in his conservative principles? Do you feel like you really got to the bottom of it or whether there was a consensus among all of these friends and associates of his about that?

KIRK: I think if there is a consensus - and as I've said a few times in this conversation, it's very complicated. Clarence Thomas' life is rich and long and filled with inconsistencies. And certainly, the last few years after he came out of the shadow of Justice Antonin Scalia, the real intellectual leader of the right on the court - once Scalia passed away, it then fell to Thomas to carry on the tradition and bring his own perspective to it in full flower. And that is, I think, what everyone who has known him all of their lives see. We had great hopes that when push came to shove on an issue like affirmative action, Clarence would still be that Black young man from Pin Point.

It's - the Roe v. Wade arguments and the Dobbs decision are a classic example of a willingness by Justice Thomas to go back at all of the cases that he was not in the majority on, and to move the court much more in that other, much more conservative direction, more conservative than maybe it's ever been. And he's doing that with a sort of mixture of I'm so happy I finally found a place where I can thrive, I'm so happy I can now get even with the forces in the society that have made me feel bad all of my life, and especially the indignities that grew out of the Anita Hill testimony and my confirmation hearings. This is Clarence Thomas' moment. People talk about it as being Clarence Thomas' court. And who he is and who the man is who is now doing that, I think, becomes much clearer now as the decisions that represent the things that have happened to him in his life connect up.

DAVIES: Well, Michael Kirk, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KIRK: My pleasure, Dave. Thank you.

DAVIES: Michael Kirk is an award-winning filmmaker. His documentary "Clarence And Ginni Thomas: Politics, Power And The Supreme Court" is available to stream for free on YouTube, "Frontline's" website and in the PBS app. On tomorrow's show, we'll talk with Kwame Alexander about his new memoir, "Why Fathers Cry At Night." It's about his life as a father and as the son of a Baptist preacher of Black liberation theology. It's also about falling in love and divorce. This is Alexander's first book for adults. He won the Caldecott Medal for his book "The Undefeated." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY SMITH'S "JUDO MAMBO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
More On This Topic