As documentaries go, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG, isn’t a nuanced or interrogative look at Associate Justice Ginsburg, but it is worth watching. Entertaining and informative, it sacrifices nuance for the sake of a broad overview of her life. Still, when all is said and done it’s breezy fun.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is somewhat of an anomaly. Consider the number of people who play a pivotal role in a seismic social movement who then go on to become a supreme court justice. More than that, they also become a pop culture icon. We’re talking about a stratosphere of popularity in which Ginsberg is on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and memes—the holy trinity of 21st-century recognition. The fact that Ginsburg has become a pop culture icon is an impressive feat. If only because knowing the names of the supreme court justices isn’t sexy or cool.
RBG straddles the line of being a series of talking heads with just enough archival footage to keep it interesting. Ginsburg has lived such a rich, full life that numerous documentaries could be made about any period of her life. Cohen and West opted to make RBG a celebratory “This Is Your Life” reel of Ginsburg’s greatest hits.
We start out introducing Ginsburg, followed by her childhood and early life, followed by her college years, and followed by and followed by. RBG never stumbles into banality though, in large part, because it’s really hard to make the Notorious RBG boring. Whether she’s quoting her favorite Sarah Grimke quote or showing us how she organizes the many silk collars she owns, Ginsburg cements her place in the legacy of great American figures.
One of the by-products of RBG is the feminist history lesson Cohen and West dole out. I was fascinated to learn that Ginsburg modeled her strategy for women’s rights based on Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Civil Rights strategy. As you may, or may not know, Marshall was the architect for the legal strategy for black civil rights.
We tend to view great social change as a consequence of sudden and sometimes eruptive incidents. In fact, movements tend to have two fronts. First, there is the social front. Marches and the demonstrations—the act of clogging up the gear works of a system. This forces the system to look at what is going on. If you disrupt business as usual people tend to pay attention. Once people notice the disruption they then begin to inquire as to why there is a disruption. A domino effect occurs as people who were previously ignorant of an injustice of an oppressive status quo become educated. Whether or not they agree is another thing entirely.
The second front is the legal argument. Ava Duvernay’s criminally underseen Selma has a scene that sums this point up nicely. The activists are sitting around a room trying to decide what Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) should discuss with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Someone suggests King discuss the fact that black Americans are required to have two white people sponsor them so they may register to vote. Another suggests that newspapers will print the names and addresses of any black person who does register to vote. Of course, someone counters with the notion that many black Americans will have to pay in order to vote.
When you have an oppressive system in place it’s more complicated than just making a single law. America is a complicated and thickly regulated bureaucracy with many an unfair or oppressive ideology baked into its laws and regulations. It’s not enough to say you just want a law or a constitutional amendment to say you’re equal.
RBG show us a young Ginsburg going before the Supreme court. Bit by little bit she chips away at the patriarchal laws and regulations long since ossified within our country’s framework. By showing us this, we begin to see the expansive view of her life. Activists must envision not what is wrong but the structural inequities within the system. Inequities that we might otherwise be blind to.
Ginsburg’s time as a women’s rights lawyer could be several documentaries all it’s own. Cohen and West talk to some of the defendants of Ginsbug’s cases as well as to one of the attorneys who argued against her in the Supreme Court. Frankly, I would have loved to have heard more from people who had to go toe to toe with Ginsburg in court.
RBG also delves into the hardships of attending Harvard Law when you are one of only four women enrolled. Ginsburg not only studied Law at Harvard, but that she raised her daughter and took care of her husband Martin, who was receiving radiation for cancer, and all while she made the Harvard Law Review. She also copied notes from Martin’s friends for his classes, also at Harvard Law. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a wife, a mother, and a law student doing the work of two people.
Impressive doesn’t seem like a big enough word. The relationship between Ruth and her husband Martin could be the basis of a great romantic comedy. The quiet and reserved Ginsburg and the gregarious and mischievous Martin. The duo give off an air of a happy bemused partnership. At one point, Ruth tells a story of a joke Martin told. The couple had gone to the theater to see a play. As they entered the audience rose and gave his wife a standing ovation. I won’t spoil the joke. But the look in Ginsburg’s face as she recalls the moment is as heartwarming as anything from Paddington 2.
I enjoyed seeing Ginsburg watch Kate McKinnon do her Ginsburg impersonation on Saturday Night Live. Ginsburg’s mad cackle of glee as she watches McKinnon, is life-giving. Still, RBG still feels more like a primer than a documentary about one of the most influential and important figures in recent American History.
Towards the end, RBG takes a few moments to mention the time Ginsburg came out against President Trump. Voicing opinions about politics is a taboo among Supreme Court Justices. Her casual disregard for a social norm is treated as a rare misstep.
RBG also seems to ignore Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. However, Cohen and West miss a wonderful chance to look at a relationship between two women of vastly different political ideologies. Two women who made history and inroads for women’s rights—what was their relationship like? If Ginsburg could have a warm and friendly relationship with Associate Justice Antonin Scalia then surely she must have had some relationship with O’Connor. But if not, why?
These are minor quibbles. If anything, I hope this spawns a dozen documentaries not just about Ginsburg, but about O’Connor, Marshall, and other Justices. If you are a Ginsburg scholar, I suspect RBG will hold little entertainment for you. But if you are an admirer who’s only really glanced at her Wikipedia page, RBG will be an informative delight.