Film & Television

‘RBG’: Thoughtful and Loving Documentary
About Our Most Notorious Justice

Summer is superhero season at the movies. Right now, or coming soon, your local multiplex is probably showing Deadpool 2, Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Solo: A Star Wars Movie (all right, Han Solo isn’t technically a superhero, but you get the general idea). So you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a documentary about a Supreme Court justice on the marquee.

Unless of course, that justice is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or, as Gloria Steinem asserts, “When you come right down to it, the closest thing to a superhero I know.”

RBG, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, is a fond portrait of the diminutive, 85-year old justice who, after a long career of shattering glass ceilings — for herself and her clients — has become the Supreme Court’s most emphatic and eloquent dissenter. In RBG, Ginsburg’s fascinating life and unlikely ascent are covered in just over an hour and a half. The film includes interviews with long-time friends, family, colleagues, and at least one former foe, as well as with the justice herself. Archival court audio powerfully underscores how ahead of her time Ginsburg really was — and why she deserves her rap-inspired nickname, the “Notorious RBG.”

Joan Ruth Bader was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, into a family of Jewish Russian immigrants. Her parents, and her mother in particular, encouraged her education. “Be a lady and be independent,” she was advised. She attended Ivy League Cornell University, where, at age 17, she met the love of her life Martin “Marty” Ginsburg. “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain,” she remembers. The two married after graduation and were both admitted to Harvard Law School.

At Harvard, Ginsburg wasn’t entirely welcome; she was one of only nine women in her class of 540. A dean famously asked the women why they dared take a seat that could have gone to a man. Ginsburg nevertheless made Law Review (only the top 25 students in each class do), and in addition to excelling at her schoolwork, she was raising a young daughter and nursing Marty through cancer treatments. It was during this period, no doubt, that she learned how to operate with very little to no sleep, a habit she continues to this day.

Marty recovered and the couple moved to New York, where he began a career as a tax attorney. Ginsburg finished her law degree at Columbia, but was unable to find a position at any firm, despite her stellar academic record. She began teaching instead, until 1972, when she was invited to co-found the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

With the ACLU, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. She represented both men and women, making a point that rewriting sexist laws would benefit both. At one point, Justice William Rehnquist jokingly asked her “So you won’t settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar?” No wonder Ginsburg has equated those hearings — and her continued attempts to persuade the all-male Supreme Court that women should be equal under the law — with teaching kindergarten.

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  • Roz Warren May 22, 2018 at 8:54 am

    Han Solo is definitely a superhero. And so is RBG. Great review!