In Ride with the Devil, a black man in a militia of racist white men.
In Ride with the Devil, a black man in a militia of racist white men. Universal Pictures

These thoughts occurred to me the day after the death of the hyper-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. I first recalled, as I walked down Beacon Avenue South (the squirrels there have clearly been fattened by the warm winter), the strange thing that happens at the end of Ride with the Devil, an underappreciated Civil War epic by the Taiwanese American director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, most famously, Brokeback Mountain).

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The film has a black man, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who is a member of a Southern-identified civilian militia called the Bushwhackers. Yes, this black man fights Union soldiers with white men who hate nothing more than people who look like him. How is this possible? Holt is very close to his master, a Southern gentleman named George Clyde (Simon Baker) who bought his right to freedom.

Clyde really does love Holt, and Holt, who says very little for over 90 percent of the movie, is faithful not so much to his master than to his master's love. If the love wasn't real, if he did not feel it, he surely wouldn't ride alongside Clyde, who also happens to be of a higher class than the other members of the militia.

But then the strange thing happens. Clyde is shot and killed in battle, and Holt is freed from his master's love. At this moment, he leaves the shadows of silence and begins talking a lot. Near the end of Ride with the Devil, he has this important conversation with Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), the film's hero:

Holt: That day George Clyde died, it changed me. I felt something that day I ain’t never felt.

Roedel: You felt that loss, that hollow feeling.

Holt: No, what I felt was free.

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Why was this scene on my mind yesterday? Because I couldn't help thinking along these lines: Now that Scalia is dead, is there the possibility of Clarence Thomas having a Holt-like experience, a transformative experience? Since his confirmation in 1991, Thomas has mostly been aligned with Scalia, a man who might be loved indirectly by squirrels fattened by climate change, but not by most of black America.

That was Thomas in the past; will this also be Thomas in the future? Will he be haunted by and faithful to the ghost of the dead Justice? Or will he become erratic, like the instruments on a plane that's entered the Bermuda Triangle? Or will he become a new man (a new black man)?

In Ride With the Devil, Holt finally tells Roedel the truth:

George Clyde, I believe I loved him, but being that man’s friend wasn’t no different than being his nigger. And Roedel, I ain’t never again gonna’ be nobody’s nigger.
Holt then joyfully rides into the sunset.