Directed by: Julie Cohen and Betsy West/2018
Liberal. Leftist. Judge. Mother. Feminist. Wife. Dissenter. Icon.
These are some of the labels that have followed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg over the course of her extremely long and distinguished career. RBG is the biographical documentary that is meant to trace her personal journey, highlight her legal impact on the culture, and explore her unexpected assent to becoming a pop culture sensation.
Over the years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been defined by many of the labels listed above, and the numerous others that are shown at the beginning of RBG. But whatever your caricature of Judge Ginsburg, seeing her through the eyes of many who know and love her, and straight from her own mouth, should soften even the most hardened critic. Produced through Storyville Films and CNN Films, RBG plays like a greatest hits film which will please her fans. Since it rarely challenges her legal positions, it will of course open itself up to appropriate criticism.
What is a surprise, however, is how the film features enough of her fiercest political and legal opponents who are more than willing to sing her praises as a person. Ted Olson, who served as the United States Solicitor General under President George W. Bush and who has even lost a couple of arguments before the Supreme Court when Judge Ginsburg was presiding, had lots of respect for her professionally.
Senator Orrin Hatch, from the Senate Judiciary Committee who was hearing her testimony for her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, is shown telling her in front of the committee, that while he disagrees with nearly everything she stands for, he respects her legal mind, and her conviction, and that he sees no reason why she should be disqualified from ascending to the position of a Supreme Court Justice. (Imagine that kind of graciousness from the opposition party in today’s political climate) Recent interviews with Hatch further confirm that his view has remained consistent for the last 24 years.
The biggest surprise to many, and a story that emerged out of his sudden death, was the close friendship she had with her fellow Justice, Antonin Scalia. Scalia likens their friendship to the “Odd Couple”, invoking laughter from Ginsburg in a joint television interview they are seen on in a clip in the film. It turns out that their families would even vacation together, and the two of them would appear together in certain operas, a love of which they both shared. A picture of the two of them on an elephant in India invokes laughs when she jokes about the political implications of the picture during an interview where she counters the sexist argument of why she is sitting behind Scalia with a soft joke about how that wasn’t why at all. She states that it was to satisfy a weight distribution need in order to help the elephant balance them (poking fun at Scalia’s weight who is seen laughing hard at her joke).
While they typically were on the opposite ends of judicial decisions, and certainly politically, Ginsburg and Scalia were a model example of how one can vehemently disagree with someone in their core principles and beliefs, yet still hold that individual in high regard, and with mutual respect and friendship. It is something that stands out in the film as being foreign to today’s political climate, but is a testament of what is possible. Despite the demonization of her among some, she is often very soft spoken, and is known to always be gracious and loving, even in her dissents. It is this very demeanor that allowed for friendships with people she often ideologically opposed, and it is shown to be one of the reasons she succeeded in cutting the trailblazing path she did as the courts second female justice.
The anchor for Ruth Bader Ginsburg in life was her late-husband Martin. Martin died in 2010, but it was great to see Ruth express the reasons she loved him, including how he would balance her tendency to work late hours by coming up to the court to bring her home for dinner before she would start back up on work again, just so that she would have a needed break. She spoke about how he gave up his successful career at a tax firm in New York so that they would follow her when her job was going to move her away. In those days, she recalled, women followed the man, the true breadwinner in the eyes of society. His support of her, and his belief that women’s careers were just as important as a man’s gave her the grounded anchor she would need to take on the causes she believed in. It was also what helped her take on the “boy’s club” establishment that largely existed in the legal profession, starting in law school at Harvard, and then Columbia, and all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Her family is featured prominently in this film, as is some great moments of her working out with her personal trainer of nearly 20 years. Having survived two cancer scares, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has refused to slow down. She does “real” pushups, and works hard. Though at 84 she is much slower than she used to be, RBG demonstrates that Ginsburg is just as sharp-witted and strategic as she has ever been.
The title of the film, her initials, stems from one of the more unlikely scenarios of her life, her ascent into the cultural lexicon. Based on her notorious way of reliably dissenting on Supreme Court opinions given that the court features more conservative minded judges than Ginsburg, she was labeled “The Notorious R.B.G.”, as a playful tribute to the legendary Rap artist “The Notorious B.I.G.”. She found this comparison funny and hilariously tells an audience why she likes the comparison, rattling off a serious of things that she and the rapper had in common. More humorous to me was that she has been caught giving out the T-Shirt with this phrase and her face on it. She has accepted the constant requests of people to get a selfie with her, and despite not really watching television she laughs a lot while being shown an SNL clip of Kate McKinnon appearing as Ginsburg in a series of comedic portrayals.
Regardless of how one feels about Ruth Bader Ginsburg politically, legally, or personally, RBG presents a view of the Supreme Court Justice that will endear her into your heart as a great American whose story is something we can all look to for inspiration. There are no real deep-cuts or dissents present in this biography documentary, but her Greatest Hits will get the toes metaphorically tapping, even among her most hardened critics.
RBG is now playing at the Alamo Drafthouse, Landmark, and other theaters.