September 17, 2020Movies
The opening credits of RBG are striking - every single role (Executive Producer, Director, Cinematographer, Original Music) is held by a woman. Their names and titles flash over sites around Washington, DC (U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, White House), scored by the Barber of Seville Overture. This is immediately followed by a series of audio clips, capturing increasingly hysterical men (including Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump) deriding Ruth Bader Ginsburg as “wicked” “a disgrace” “A zombie! The woman’s a zombie!” In the final shot of the introduction we land on the Supreme Court building, and then hear Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, say “I ask no favor for my sex, all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
And so begins an informative and easy to digest documentary showcasing key milestones in the life of the woman who would, in her ninth decade on earth, become known as the Notorious RBG.
I confess to having been a fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg knowing only a fraction of why she is worthy of all her accolades. I’ve always admired her grit and determination, especially how she’s endured serious illness while staying energetically focused on one of the most important jobs in the country. I understood her to be an important voice of dissent on the Supreme Court as it became more and more conservative-leaning. And of course I was aware of her head-scratching friendship with Antonin Scalia, fellow Associate Justice and opera aficionado. But I knew very little about her many contributions to women’s rights, years before she joined the court. There are a few things I really like about this film, outlined below.
After the introduction, we join Justice Ginsburg working out with her trainer (in her “Super Diva!” sweatshirt). The song playing on the soundtrack is The Bullpen by Dessa. It’s a banger, and the lyrics seem custom made to describe the pint-sized powerhouse that is RBG.
“Forget the bull in the china shop
There’s a china doll in the bullpen
Walk with a switch, fire in her fist
Biting at the bit
Swing at every pitch"
It sets the tone for the whole film.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 87 years old, and this documentary is an hour and 38 minutes. Of course we can’t learn everything. But I think the creators did a good job of selecting key moments from each phase of Justice Ginsburg’s life, all of which help demonstrate how her worldview was formed and how she became such a force to reckon with in the fight for equality in America.
The film uses the opening statement in her 1993 Senate confirmation hearing as a framing device. It cuts back and forth from her own words, starting with “What has become of me could happen only in America.”
As we see family pictures from her childhood, she shares how her parents encouraged her to love learning, care about people, and work hard for whatever she wanted or believed in.
We learn how she met Marty (who would become her husband) at Cornell. (Go Big Red!). “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain.”
And she discusses a government professor who, during the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, wanted her to see that the country was straying from its most basic values. But also that there were lawyers who were defending the right to speak freely. It was then Justice Ginsburg “...got the idea that you could do something that would make your society a little better.” (Points for understatement, Justice Ginsburg!)
The film progresses mostly chronologically, and while it doesn’t spend too much time on any of the anecdotes that round out RBG’s story, we get a good understanding of her progression from brilliant law student to ACLU lawyer to federal judge to Supreme Court justice. I’m definitely left wanting more, but found this an excellent introduction, giving me an idea of what parts of her remarkable journey I’d like to study further.
The filmmakers do a good job of demonstrating Justice Ginsburg’s legal prowess, with quick glimpses into the cases she argued as part of her work at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. The cases are described by some of the key players, and we get to both see and hear Justice Ginsburg’s words. Actual text of her legal briefs are overlaid on screen, and audio clips of her SCOTUS arguments are played over scenes of the empty court, so we can see where she would have been standing and what she would have seen from her vantage point.
What was really interesting to me was the portrayal of Justice Ginsburg’s approach to her work. Her colleague at the Women’s Rights Project, Brenda Feigen, shares “Ruth was developing her philosophy to take cases that would make good law. If the case was going to be on its way to the Supreme Court, we wanted to be involved.” She worked to show the depth and importance of sex discrimination, with plaintiffs that were women AND men. Again, I would have loved to have heard more about Justice Ginsburg’s skill as a strategist, but it was gratifying to learn about the very smart way she advanced her goals of equality and civil rights.
We hear from people in Justice Ginsburg's personal life (her kids, grandkids, childhood friends) as well as her professional life. Some admirers are expected (Gloria Steinem) and some unexpected (Orrin Hatch). Critically, we hear from Justice Ginsburg herself, both in archival footage but also in interviews conducted specifically for this film.
Justice Ginsburg still goes to multiple opera festivals each year. “When I am at an opera I get totally carried away - I don’t think about the case that’s coming up next week or the brief I’m in the middle of. I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the music, the drama. The sound of the human voice is like an electric current going through me.” Taking refuge in pop culture despite the stresses of the world? RELATABLE!
One of the best moments of the film happens when she watches Kate McKinnon perform as Justice Ginsburg on SNL (“ya been Ginsburned!”). RBG giggles - a lot, more than we’ve seen at any other point in the film. Finding Kate McKinnon’s comedy stylings irresistible no matter how ridiculous? EVEN MORE RELATABLE!
For someone so famous for dissent, there are really no dissenting opinions in this film. Everyone is universally positive about Ginsburg’s career. Weirdly, the only thing characterized as a misstep is when in 2016 she publicly made unflattering comments about then-candidate Trump. This is only touched on briefly, and in the deepest of ironies it’s Orrin Hatch who brushes it off as a mere mistake she apologized for so no harm no foul. While I certainly revere Ginsburg, I think it would be interesting to hear from people who aren’t as enamored of her and her accomplishments. I’m not saying I want more of the kind of quotes we hear at the beginning of the movie, but perhaps cases or opinions when she wasn’t so clearly on the right side of history and how she evolved from that.
But that’s definitely not the mission of this film - it correctly exalts one woman who has been critical to advancing the rights of all women. I finished this movie with a much better understanding of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and eager to learn even more about her. If the goal of a documentary is to inform and inspire action, RBG is an unqualified success.
One Hour, 38 Minutes
Available free on Hulu, for rent on other streaming services