Spanning the many decades of the life and career of United States Supreme Court of the United States Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ‘RGB’ is new documentary from co-directors Julie Cohen (‘American Veteran’) and Betsy West (‘The Lavender Scare’). The title of the documentary isn’t merely Ginsburg’s initials, but a nod to her nickname, “Notorious R.B.G.,” obviously inspired by the gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G. Not only is this a cute play on words (Ginsburg is a physically tiny woman), but it reminds us that she is also a rebel with famously well-worded dissenting opinions, like the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, in which she defended the need to protect the Voting Rights Act.
To the uninitiated, 85-year-old Justice Ginsburg is an icon of our times. A woman who weathered extremely difficult conditions to sit on the highest court in America as someone dedicated to equality - for women, and for people of different races and cultures. The film explores how she developed a legal legacy while becoming an unexpected pop culture icon (her nickname is branded on coffee mugs, t-shirts, biographies, and even “dissent collar” necklaces). The storyline is basically linear, but includes frequent jumps backward, forward and even sideways as it examines different aspects of her life, personality and public image.
Following a biographical chronology, beginning with Ginsburg's life from her childhood in Brooklyn, New York during the 1930s and quickly delving into her years struggling to be taken seriously as a young female law student and practicing attorney, ‘RBG’ mixes in historical photos, videos, audio clips, graphics, and plentiful interviews with friends, contemporaries, admirers and a few (grudgingly respectful) detractors, like Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.
Ginsburg’s status as the Notorious R.B.G. became a meme, thanks in part to a blog on Tumblr, which later spawned a book, ‘Notorious RBG: The Life And Times Of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’. Its authors, Shana Knizhnik and Irin Carmon, interviewed here, offer a millennial perspective on the icon, although Ginsburg’s cult fandom online comes off as a little superficial - the real Ginsburg is no less heroic, but certainly more complicated than her social media iconography suggests. Throughout ‘RBG’, Ginsburg’s friends and co-workers regularly describe her as reserved, shy, and deeply serious.
We also hear from fellow feminist hero Gloria Steinem, former President Bill Clinton and, of course, Ginsburg herself - at various public appearances, working out at the gym to rap music with her personal trainer Bryant Johnson, yakking with her granddaughter (who graduated from Harvard Law School half a century after Ginsburg became one of its inaugural female enrolees) and sitting down to discuss her life (mostly sharing retrospective commentary on her most landmark cases, before and after she joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, appointed by Clinton).
The film highlights monumental cases from before Ginsberg took her seat as one of the Supremes (like the 1973 sexual discrimination case of Frontiero v. Richardson, in which Ginsburg successfully argued on her behalf as a lawyer representing the ACLU), as well as United States v. Virginia, Ginsburg’s first major success as a Supreme Court justice for which she wrote the ruling against the Virginia Military Institute’s males-only admission policy. Also discussed is Bush v. Gore, the case that declared George W. Bush the winner of the 2000 presidential election.
Did you know the famously liberal Ginsburg had an odd-couple friendship with oafish ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and that they once rode on an elephant together?
Amazing facts abound. Did you know that Ginsburg was one of only nine female students out of a class of 500 at Harvard Law, that she made law review, and that upon graduating in 1959, not a single law firm in New York offered her a job because she was a woman? Did you know the famously liberal Ginsburg had an odd-couple friendship with oafish ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and that they once rode on an elephant together?
The other striking thing is the 56-year-long marriage between RBG to her husband Martin. She speaks about her undergraduate years at Cornell where there was a four-to-one ratio of boys to girls. “Every mother wanted to send their daughter there because, if you couldn't find a husband there, you were hopeless.” She reveals that during her freshman year, she never dated the same boy twice. That is, until she met Marty, who was the first guy that recognised her intellect. When President Carter brought her to the federal bench, Marty gave up his career as a tax attorney in New York to move to DC to support her, an unusually progressive move. Later, when she was nominated to the Supreme Court, Marty rallied on behalf of his much more reserved wife with endless enthusiasm. He was also the cook in the family - her children mention they had to keep her out of the kitchen because of her horrible culinary skills.
‘RBG’ is an unashamed hagiography (Ginsburg’s position on issues other than gender equality are barely acknowledged) but it’s still a fascinating documentary, with compelling subject matter woven together expertly by Cohen and West, who keep Ginsburg’s story chugging along while painting a detailed picture of her life.
Although this documentary may lack in terms of stylistic flourishes, it does a beautiful job of telling the origin story of a contemporary hero and why someone like Ginsburg is such an admired figure to a younger generation. With the recent strides taken to elevate women’s voices in today’s society, ‘RBG’ is a very timely film, indeed.