As the saying goes, not all superheroes wear capes. In fact, some might even be clad in black robes and lace collars. That’s the emotional takeaway from Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s excellent documentary “RBG,” which tells the story of iconic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Tracing her life from childhood through the present, the film both humanizes Ginsburg and cements exactly why she’s so beloved by those who are passionate about women’s rights and gender equality.
From a filmmaking perspective, “RBG” doesn’t reinvent the documentary form — it relies on a mix of archival videos and still images and interviews with family members, friends, and colleagues/fellow public figures to tell Ginsburg’s story. But there’s no need for tricks and gimmicks when you have a life and career this rich to document. There’s heartbreak — Ginsburg’s mother died on the eve of her high school graduation — but there’s also humor (watching Ginsburg chuckle at Kate McKinnon’s firecracker impersonation of her on “Saturday Night Live” is sublime), not to mention adversity and achievement.
Even those who are familiar with Ginsburg’s record as a lawyer and judge are bound to pick up new information about the details of her career, from the early days, when she had to fight hard for even a clerkship within the boys’ club world of law, to landmark cases like Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, in which she successfully argued that widowers should be entitled to the same survivor Social Security benefits as widows upon the death of a spouse. Diligent, detailed, and tireless, Ginsburg’s dedication to gender equity is portrayed as unwavering — and inorexable.
“RBG” also succeeds in introducing viewers to Ginsburg as a woman, not just a great legal mind. Her decades-long marriage to husband Martin, who died in 2010 after a long battle with cancer, is presented as a true union of equals — well, except in the kitchen (he could cook; she can’t). Her adult children recall keeping count of the number of times their mother laughed (she’s notoriously serious). Her unexpectedly close friendship with conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is discussed, and her dedication to her regular workout routine is documented. All of these details add up to present a rich, intelligent portrait of a woman whose impact on America will be felt long after her lace collar is retired. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Susan Wloszczyna: She has been called a witch, evil-doer and zombie. But lately, thanks to a fervid Millennial fan base, countless online memes and Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon’s feisty impersonation, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is having a pop-cultural moment. But whether you cheer her liberal leanings on the bench or not, co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary RBG is a thoroughly engaging portrait of this petite 85-year-old Brooklyn-born grandmother of four’s career as a crusader against gender discrimination in landmark cases as well as a celebration of her nearly 56-year marriage to tax lawyer and college beau Martin Ginsburg, who was all too happy to play supportive spouse so his wife could pursue her legal dreams. Cheekily nicknamed “the Notorious RBG” – inspired by the rapper the Notorious BIG – Ginsburg lives up to the title, whether pumping 3-pound barbells in a “Super Diva” T-shirt or delivering an eviscerating dissenting opinion in court. Highlights include her love of opera, which includes amusing footage of her non-singing appearance as a duchess in The Daughter of the Regiment, and a tribute to her odd-couple friendship with the late fellow Justice Antonin Scalia. Little wonder that such disparate politicians as Joe Biden and Orin Hatch are shown to be clearly in awe of this woman. If there is just one film this year that is sure to inspire females of all ages, RBG should do it.
Kristen Page Kirby: Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be the mythical woman who manages to cram more hours into the day. Before the 85-year-old and her sporty collars became fixtures on both the Supreme Court and in pop culture, Ginsburg was a quiet powerhouse, fighting for women’s equality in the courts. Before THAT she somehow managed to succeed (to put it lightly) in law school while raising toddlers, caring for an ill husband and sleeping very little. RBG acknowledges Ginsburg’s importance to feminism and the Supreme Court — and her hip popularity — but the documentary puts Justice Ginsburg’s work into an often-overlooked context. Younger women who may only know “the notorious RBG” from Kate McKinnon’s impersonation on “SNL” might very well be surprised by Ginsburg’s early, important courtroom work. They will probably be even more surprised when they find out the obstacles women faced — codified discrimination didn’t only include paying women less than men, but such minutiae as being unable to have a credit card without their husband’s signature. RBG takes audiences behind the bench and not only shows the woman behind the icon, but her importance to feminism’s very recent history.
Marilyn Ferdinand: As I watched RBG, a breezy documentary about the life and work of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I thought of my mother, also a small Jewish woman who couldn’t cook, lived to work, described herself as small but mighty, and who always struck me as someone who would have been the CEO of a major corporation if she had been born at a different time—and, crucially, in Brooklyn. Something about Ginsburg’s roots at what was then the center of the American universe stuck with her and helped her cultivate her exceptional mind and quietly shrewd character to become the incredible force for justice that she is today, admired even by arch-conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch. To those who only know Justice Ginsburg as the Notorious RBG, a small but mighty cultural icon in a lace collar, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary will provide a much fuller picture of her as a woman with a full private life and as a litigator and judge whose own struggles with gender-based discrimination set her on her path. In a life as long and accomplished as Ginsburg’s, Cohen and West can only hit the highlights, from her first oral argument in a sex discrimination case before the Supreme Court as an ACLU attorney to her savage dissent of the decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act. But it’s enough to make a fan out of just about anyone.
MaryAnn Johanson I’m not sure that any justification need be offered in heartily recommending a documentary about legal pioneer and formidable judicial activist Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She is a legend, and an icon, and yet also a woman who, despite her enormous success in a male-dominated field, is one not much understood or appreciated by the American public. This incredibly inspiring film should put that to rights. As a bonus, this is a film crafted almost entirely by women. Every name — every single name — in the opening credits (producers, editor, cinematographer, directors, etc) is female. That is so rare and so astonishing that it leaps right out at the viewer, and sets a mighty feminist tone for a mighty feminist movie. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Even fans of the tiny, fierce intellectual powerhouse that is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be surprised by this utterly engaging documentary. Her brilliant strategy was as important to the Women’s Movement as her role model, Thurgood Marshall, was to the Civil Rights Movement. And her love story is one of the most touching you will see on or off screen this year. Read Nell Minow’s interview with Julie Cohen and Betsy West.
Anne Brodie: RBG opens with fire breathing venom from among others Donald Trump and other men, describing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a witch, disgrace, vile, wicked and a zombie. Proving right from the get go that the brilliant, uniquely gifted 85 year old Supreme Court Justice was and remains a victim of deeply-felt misogyny. She had the nerve to say “All I ask our brethren to do is take their feet off our necks” and mean it. The old white male establishment is aggrieved that a woman, a Jew, intelligent and well-spoken got as far as she did and that she did so much for social justice in her long career. She was able to create “a legal landscape” of fairness and support for minorities, a calling to which she devotes her life. Ginsburg is highly quotable; she says regarding her beloved opera, “the human voice is like an electric current” and Donald Trump is a “fake”. She doesn’t do small talk, she can’t cook and she doesn’t sleep, preferring to work until 5 or 6 in the morning and go to work at 9. She was treated for cancer twice and never missed a day’s work. Plus she works out like a demon. Gloria Steinem nailed it calling her “the closest thing to a superhero”. RBG is embraced by young people who have taken her as their own heroine, complete with her own memes and the apt nickname Notorious RBG. Her liberalism, savvy and results mean a lot to young idealists particularly in the current political environment. So in addition to all she achieved she will continue to inspire and influence policy for tomorrow’s voters. Co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West have crafted a highly entertaining, moving and illuminating portrait of someone I knew little about (I’m Canadian ) whose influence will be felt for generations to come.
Esther Iverem: In telling the life story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG is a celebration of the human spirit. Importantly, this movie reveals how, in the 1970’s, Ginsburg walked in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall, laying the legal groundwork for women’s rights as Marshall had laid groundwork for the rights of African-Americans. This movie is an important document of one woman and of American history.
Jennifer Merin RBG, the superb biodoc about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a life long pioneer in the ongoing movement for equal rights for women and an unwavering advocate for justice for all, is an entertaining and enlightening treat. Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West chronicle Justice Ginsburg’s life from her early childhood through each phase of her career and family life to the present when, at age 80+ and still going strong, she has a vast following of young fans who have fondly dubbed her the Notorious RBG. The film’s release is a timely reminder that women can and shall prevail in our quest for equality and justice. Brava RBG!
Cate Marquis This documentary gives us the low-down on this brilliant but reserved attorney who is having an unlikely turn as a cultural darling. The documentary RBG starts out with clips of Republican or politically-conservative men reviling Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg as if she were the devil incarnate. For these right-leaning white men, she may well be just that, or at least their worst nightmare, a characterization the small but mighty RBG might embrace, or maybe even relish. Read full review.
Jeanne Wolf: RBG is a rock star !! What a shining example for us all. The film humanizes our heroine but not so much that she loses her super powers.
Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Release Date: May 4, 2018
Running Time: 97 minutes
Distribution Company: Magnolia Pictures
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferinand, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin