Film & Television

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

In 1980, President Carter nominated Ginsburg for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where she served until 1993, when President Clinton nominated her for the Supreme Court. She was confirmed in a 96 to 3 vote, making her only the second female justice — after Sandra Day O’Connor. At that time, she was considered a cautious and moderate judge. However, in today’s more conservative political and judicial environments, she has become something of a liberal folk hero, as well as a role model for many young women.

One of these is her granddaughter, Clara Spera (“You know her as RGB, but she’s Bubbie to me”). Following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Spera recently graduated from Harvard Law School. Her class was the first to be exactly 50/50 women and men.

Scenes between Ginsburg and Spera are among RBG‘s most engaging. Cohen and West also bring us into Ginsburg’s daily workouts with her personal trainer (anyone concerned that the octogenarian justice may be too frail for her job should try holding a plank as long as she can). We also get a glimpse into her closet and impressive collection of judicial collars. And we get to see her onstage as well as on the bench. A life-long opera fan, she guest-starred in a spoken-word cameo with the Washington National Opera. Appearing in Daughter of the Regiment mere days after Trump’s election, she jokingly asked for copies of the lovers’ birth certificates before bestowing her blessing.

Ginsburg is no fan of Donald Trump’s, publicly calling him “a faker” in 2016. She later apologized, but nevertheless avoided his State of the Union address by accepting a conflicting speaking engagement. Among liberals, there was some consensus that Ginsburg should have stepped down while Obama was in office rather than risk having her seat open while Trump is in office (thereby enabling him to appoint her replacement). RBG makes it quite clear that Ginsburg believes that she still has work to do. A widow now, with grownup grandchildren, she isn’t going anywhere soon if she can help it.

Her “Notorious” moniker emerged after she wrote the stinging dissent to 2013’s Shelby County v.  Holder, a case which challenged the coverage formula for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She acknowledged that voting discrimination had decreased, but that was because of the Voting Rights Act and was therefore the very opposite of an argument for its dismissal. She memorably wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Her words inspired a collection of popular memes, styling her after rapper “The Notorious B.I.G.” (“We’re both from Brooklyn,” Ginsburg slyly acknowledges.) A best-selling biography, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was published by Shana Knizhnik and Irin Carmon, both of whom are interviewed in RBG. There are also tee shirts and bobble-heads, and even an RBG action figure coming soon.

Sitting down to watch RBG, take a moment to pay attention to the opening credits. In addition to Cohen and West, the production team is almost wholly female. Producers include the two directors, along with Amy Entelis, Alexandra Hannibal, Nadine Natour, Courtney Sexton, and Renée Silverman. Music is by Miriam Cutler, cinematography by Claudia Raschke, and editing by Carla Gutierrez. I was reminded of a comment that Ginsburg made when she spoke last year at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

“There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.”

To anyone with raised eyebrows, she’s quick to point out that for many years no one questioned that there were nine men on the Supreme Court.

RBG is a marvelously informative and engaging film. It is rather one-sided—the filmmakers are clearly enamored of their subject—but you could argue that some of the best documentaries begin with a definite opinion. As a character study — and as a reminder of the legal and judicial battles women have been fighting for the past 50 years — it succeeds in no uncertain terms.

Ginsburg remains an exceptional contemporary spokesperson for the women’s rights movement. Her focus is fairness and the U.S. Constitution’s implied promise that a more perfect union would be one that regards all men and women as equal under the law. Early on, she borrowed the words of nineteenth-century feminist, abolitionist, and 1830s superhero Sarah Gremke, and Ginsburg recites them again in RBG.

“I ask no favor for our sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

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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!