Depending on who you ask, Ruth Bader Ginsburg might be better known as a meme than as a Supreme Court Justice. After a series of searing dissents from her conservative colleagues, Ginsburg become the subject of a tumblr, which led to everything from a book deal to SNL parodies. Men and women have Ginsburg tattoos, and now the Justice has a second career as a cultural/legal icon. RBG, the engaging new documentary from Julie Cohen and Betsy West, unpacks the history that led to her becoming so revered. Nothing about the film’s approach is innovative, but then again, you don’t need to reinvent cinema when the subject is this good.
The structure of the film is like long-form profile you might find in Vanity Fair or New York Magazine. Cohen and West introduce Justice Ginsburg, with a mix of playful teases and evocative quotes, before they dig into a more traditional biography. They gloss over her early life – she was just Ruth Bader back then, a reserved young woman who grew up in Brooklyn – focusing instead on her career is a civil rights advocate. Before becoming a judge, Ginsburg spoke before the all-male court so that men and women would have equal treatment under the law. We hear excerpts from her arguments, and quiet forcefulness of what she says is disarming.
Cohen and West interview a number of friends and colleagues, including NPR’s Nina Totenberg and Bill Clinton. They all speak about Ginsburg’s serious, reserved nature, as well as her work ethic. Already into her eighties, she still works well past midnight and exercises regularly. These interviews and supplemental footage have a twofold purpose: to demonstrate her singular devotion to the law, and to assure her fans that she is not retiring or leaving the bench anytime soon. By the time Ginsburg speaks to a group of high school students, all of whom are fully engaged with her plainspoken intelligence, the directors lessen the lingering worry from the time she fell asleep at the State of the Union.
Even long Ginsburg stans may learn something from the film’s most interesting section, a primer on the women’s rights movement of the 1970s. Cohen and West unpack the major cases Ginsburg worked on, talking with the plaintiffs and sometimes the opposing counsel, and the cumulative effect is that we take her hard work for granted. Another parallel story is about her family – she was married for over fifty years, with children and grandchildren – and their reverence is a good entry point into what makes her unique.
Women would not have equal pay without Ginsburg, nor would they be able to enroll in Virginia Military Institute, while men would not be able to collect Social Security after the death of a spouse. She did not convince judges in these cases with bluster or rhetoric, and instead made her case with forceful elegance. All of RBG’s talking heads, including Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, speak of her with admiration. The film’s framing device is Ginsburg’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and the utter respect she commands is a welcome reprieve from the avalanche of diarrhea that defines our current news cycle.
RBG conveys the sense that Ruth Bader Ginsburg represents public life at its finest and most humane. There is some sense of the woman underneath her devotion; that she is warm-hearted, curious woman only makes her that much easier to admire. A lifelong opera fan, we learn in RBG that Ginsburg appeared onstage in a minor role at The Kennedy Center just two days after the 2016 election. We see snippets of her performance – the audience burst into applause at the sight of her – and I could not help but wish I had learned about this cameo earlier (it would have been a moment of levity during a time of nationwide despair).
After a career of advancing and defending civil rights for all Americans, Ruth Bader Ginsburg certainly deserves more than to be a meme. Then again, in an ironic sense there is no better evidence of her lasting impression on American history.