On May 4th, a history of the life and career of Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, titled simply RBG, and directed by acclaimed filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, arrives at select theaters. In the spirit of Ginsburg’s advocacy for women’s rights, the film was made with an all-female production team, which is almost unprecedented.
RBG endeavors to present the history of the Justice and her work, while also providing context to her story, and it packs a fantastic amount of content into its concise runtime of about 90 minutes.
The story is told through a mix of archival videos, past interviews and other television appearances, pictures, and original footage and interviews. Besides the legal lioness herself, a wide breadth of characters from her life are interviewed, including: childhood and law school friends, family members, reporters, former and current employees and colleagues, politicians, people affected by the cases she argued and ruled on at the Supreme Court, and other people whose lives Ginsburg touched.
The director of photography, Claudia Raschke, sneakily circumvented the challenge of not being able to film in the courtroom while the court is in session by showing a background of the empty bench, playing voice recordings of trials, and writing out the words as they were heard.
The directors stated that they have admired the justice’s trailblazing work for women’s rights for years, but only now that she has “broken out as the octogenarian rock star, with millennials extolling her virtues on [social media], stocking up on RBG tee-shirts and tote bags and, in extreme cases, getting big, permanent, multi-color tattoos of her face,” did they realize that this documentary had to be made.
In recent years, Ginsburg has become a pop-culture icon. She has become famous for her scathing dissents and feisty grandma persona. She is known as “the Notorious RBG” and “the Great Dissenter.” She has tumblr and twitter accounts devoted to her and her fans. She has become a hero for young people interested in social justice and the law.
Ginsburg is portrayed through the documentary as truly extraordinary, as her fans say. Perhaps the best display of her badass-ary is in scenes of her exercising while wearing a shirt reading “Super Diva!” to the background tunes of opera.
Another amazing scene depicts her taking on a guest role in an opera, which is clearly shown as one of her biggest passions. The documentary soundtrack cleverly incorporates opera and classical music, giving the film a very particular sound and feeling that fit perfectly with the persona and attitude of Ginsburg herself.
It is repeated by many of those close to her that Ginsburg is a very somber person, but it is also clear that she has a sense of humor about herself. When asked her opinion of Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of her on Saturday Night Live, she said, “that’s marvelously funny,” but when asked if it reminded her of herself, she responded, “not one bit, except for the collar.”
For those fans who know her as a snippy, strong-minded queen of the highest court in the country, this documentary is eye-opening to how much more she has accomplished. Her time on the court is not even mentioned until well over halfway through the film. Much time is spent on her early life, education, and career as an ACLU attorney focusing on discrimination cases on the basis of gender. During that time, she won five out of six cases she argued before the Supreme Court.
The film also beautifully portrays another aspect of her life, her loving and supportive relationship with her husband, Martin, who passed away in 2010. Their love is so clear from this film, despite the inability to conduct direct interviews with Martin. Knowing all that they did for each other, it was impossible not to tear up when Ginsburg talked about how his death impacted her. He was obviously so important to her and without him being so willing to let his image take the backseat to hers, she would not be the icon she is today. As a sweet tribute to the relationship, the directors list their husbands as recipients of the Martin Ginsburg Award for Supportive Husbanding at the end of the credits.
Despite her famously feisty attitude, Ginsburg makes it clear when being interviewed that she has had to be incredibly reserved to make it to where she is today. When asked how she responded as a young lawyer to ignorance from judges and others on gender inequality, she replied, “Never in anger. As my mother taught me, that would have been self defeating. Always as an opportunity to teach. I did kind of see myself as a kindergarten teacher in those days because the justices didn’t think sex discrimination existed.”
Ginsburg is such a bundle of personality that a documentary about her seems like an obvious project to undertake. Just how she looks is a hilarious contradiction. “She is this tiny little person, and that is so in contrast with being the ferocious defender of minorities and women and certain kinds of ideals,” justice correspondent for NPR, Nina Totenberg said in the film.
The documentary, having wonderfully dissected such a great yet mysterious woman, ends on a beautiful and fitting note, with the Court Crier saying “Oye, oye, oye. The court is now in session,” and then immediately cutting to the credits and “The Bullpen”, which is a total jam about female power by singer, rapper, and writer Dessa.
This is a film made for those who have never heard of Ginsburg or those who disagree with her as much as it is for her fans. The fatal flaw of so many documentaries on any kind of famous figure is that it becomes too much like propaganda, blindly applauding every action of the subject. This film does not fall into that trap. While no interviews are shown of people just tearing into her, she is criticized by many of the talking heads. At the same time, she is praised by several of her opponents. If there is anything to be taken away from this film, it is that Ginsburg is a force with which to be reckoned.