Depending upon your political leanings, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a “witch, evildoer, or monster,” or “the closest thing we have to a superhero.” Both of these descriptions appear in the excellent documentary RBG. Regardless of your ideology, it’s impossible to leave RBG without a newfound respect for the diminutive pioneer of gender equality.
“Be a lady and be independent.”
Those words, uttered by Ginsburg’s mother, shaped the philosophy of one of America’s fiercest and most successful litigators. From the very beginning, when she was one of only nine women at Harvard Law School in 1956 (compared to 500 men), she fought inequality with ferocity and guile. And yet, she approaches each opponent with respect and an eye toward compromise. Indeed, one of the film’s most surprising revelations is her abiding friendship with the late uber-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
The primary objective of co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West is to bolster Ginsburg’s rock star status as a rabble-rouser. We get lots of footage from the 84-year-old’s personal workouts, which include push-ups and planks. As a justice, Ginsburg was forced into a more pugnacious role after George W. Bush’s conservative appointees to the Court in the 2000s. She has rendered several pointed dissenting opinions on important cases, including the 5–4 decision in Bush v Gore, which ended the recount efforts in Florida and awarded the presidency to Bush in 2000.
For her part, Ginsburg seems delighted by the ‘RBG’ homage to the late rapper The Notorious B.I.G. “We have a lot in common,” Ginsburg quips. “We were both born and bred in Brooklyn.”
The filmmakers return to these Brooklyn connections several times, searching Ginsburg’s background for the secret to her inexhaustible energy. Childhood friends describe a rambunctious girl who preferred rough-n-tumble boy’s games to more feminine fare. “Kiki,” as her friends call her, was particularly fond of jumping across the garage doors of her neighbors’ houses.
Ginsburg’s voice is a strong presence throughout the film, providing plenty of voiceover insight, as well as face-to-face interview time. Her measured tone is a charming blend of confidence and humility. Though she isn’t outwardly funny, her dry humor makes for an enjoyable chat.
“I tend to be rather sober,” Ginsburg concedes. This claim is bolstered by the logbook kept by her two children called “Mommy Laughed,” in which they track her infrequent guffaws. Speculation abounds that the logbook remains largely unpopulated.
It’s clear from RBG that Ginsburg has had two major loves in her life: the law and her husband Martin. Although much of their focus remains on Ginsburg’s legal legacy, Cohen and West spend plenty of time on Martin, as well. His role in the film mirrors the role he played for Ginsburg for over 50 years: provide comic relief and an emotional connection. It’s charming to watch him tease her over the years — via archival footage from press conferences — particularly for her infamous lack of culinary acumen.
“My wife does not give me any advice about cooking, and I do not give her any advice about the law,” Martin once joked. “This seems to work quite well on both sides.”
Yet it was Martin who championed Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993. Several interviewees wonder aloud if Martin’s legal connections in Washington, D.C. finally secured her name on Bill Clinton’s expansive list of potential candidates.
Still, the filmmakers keep their focus primarily on Ginsburg’s monumental legal cases, particularly her six battles against the Supreme Court in the 1970s. Audio recordings of Ginsburg’s arguments bear witness to a big brain who anticipated every counterpoint her opponents might make. She boasts five victories in six appearances before the Supreme Court, with most of those cases standing as landmarks in the burgeoning legal arena of gender equality.
“I ask no favors for my sex,” Ginsburg paraphrases the famous quote by feminist icon Sarah Moore Grimké. “All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.” Ginsburg has appeared more outwardly vocal on women’s issues over the years, as well as her public condemnation of Donald Trump’s presidential run in 2016. Ginsburg was widely derided for her inappropriate statements about Trump, a gaffe that the filmmakers, thankfully, do not overlook.
Whether you can’t wait for Ginsburg to step down or you pray every night for her continued good health, RBG is inarguably a fitting tribute to an American legend. It’s a breezy blend of legalese, hero-worship, and firsthand insight into a woman who helped re-write the history books.