D: Julie Cohen, Betsy West / 98m
With: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Arthur R. Miller, Nina Totenberg, Clara Spera, James Steven Ginsburg, Jane C. Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Shana Knizhnik, Irin Carmon, Sharron Frontiero, Stephen Wiesenfeld, Lilly Ledbetter, Orrin Hatch
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Ruth Bader earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University; it was there that she met her husband-to-be, Martin Ginsburg. Stints at Harvard Law School and Columbia University led to her becoming a law professor. It was during this period of her life that RBG (as she has come to be known) encountered various and wide-ranging examples of gender inequality. Recognising the unfairness of the situation, in 1972 Ginsburg co-founded the Womens Rights Project at the ACLU; over the next four years she argued six gender discrimination cases before the US Supreme Court – and won five of them. In 1980 she was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and stayed there until she was appointed to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in 1993; she has remained in the post ever since. Because of her work as a legal advocate, litigator, and judge, Ginsburg has become something of a cultural icon in the last couple of decades, and an inspiration to young women around the globe…
A documentary about an octogenarian Supreme Court justice whose fame as a trailblazer for gender equality within the framework of the US legal system has been overshadowed in recent years due to a meme that referred to her as The Notorious R.B.G., Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s affectionate yet sobering movie is a tribute to Ginsburg’s tenacity over six decades. As RBG explores the legal, political, and social upheaval that Ginsburg was involved in during the Seventies and Eighties, it becomes abundantly clear just how much of an impact she had, and just how much has changed thanks to her efforts. That she remained as focused and determined as she did, while having a successful marriage and raising two children (James and Jane), and earning the respect and admiration of her male peers as well, is an amazing feat that reinforces just how well regarded she has become, and why it’s so well deserved (and how many associate judges of the US Supreme Court can say they’ve appeared, albeit very briefly, in both Deadpool 2 (2018) and The LEGO Movie 2 (2019)?). And she remains entirely self-effacing, a fact that makes watching RBG all the more interesting and enjoyable.
What the movie does so well, aside from ticking off most of her considerable achievements over the years, is to find out who the woman behind the meme really is, and thanks to an astute combination of archive material and modern day interviews, Cohen and West have assembled a documentary that does just that. Ginsburg emerges as a quiet, introspective woman with a good sense of humour, a stronger sense of natural justice, and fiercely independent in her thinking. She appears relaxed on screen, and in many ways curious about being the subject of a biographical movie, further traits that make her endearing to those who’ve never heard of her before, and which reinforce her stature as a right-thinking liberal for those who have. Her marriage to Martin is given a lot of emphasis, and while there’s an argument that she wouldn’t have been as successful in her career if he hadn’t been her bedrock (which she acknowledges), it’s this decades spanning love affair that provides the emotional core of a movie that might have otherwise been much drier. That said, it’s a heartfelt mix of serious historical reportage and sometimes surprisingly goofy humour, and provides viewers with an insight into the mind of someone who truly did have an impact on the way two generations of American women are now able to live their lives.
Rating: 8/10 – a stirring and enjoyable documentary that highlights the incalculable influence that one individual can have when they are determined enough, RBG is a sincere, intelligent, and captivating movie that serves as a reminder that it wasn’t just racial equality that was being fought for during the Sixties and Seventies; there might not be too much in the way of criticism of Ginsburg, but then this isn’t a fawning hagiography either, settling as it does for serving up large swathes of her life, and leaving the viewer to judge her more controversial actions – such as her pre-election criticism of Donald Trump – on their own merits.