Kids these days, am I right? If they aren’t playing video games for countless hours or taking endless selfies, they’re making an 85-year-old Supreme Court justice the center of a wildly popular meme. That last one might not quite fit the stereotype, but it’s nevertheless true. Back in 2013, an NYU law student named Shana Knizhnik created a Tumblr page that celebrated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Notorious R.B.G. It’s a play on the name of classic hip-hop artist The Notorious B.I.G., and the meme transformed Ginsburg into a gangsta-style bad-ass on a tireless quest for justice and social equality.
Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West used the meme as an entry point for RBG, their documentary that covers the life of the towering – at least in terms of her professional achievements, if not her physical stature – Ginsburg. Among her many accomplishments is the distinction of being the second woman ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court. The film is a touching portrait of a person who changed the course of history for all women in America. The octogenarian continues to make history from her position in the highest court in the land. She is a hero in the tireless fight of progressive reformers: to make America live up to its highest ideals, ensuring every citizen equality under the law.
It would be almost impossible to make a bad or boring documentary when your subject is as interesting as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and you’ve been given the kind of access that Cohen and West got for RBG. So, while the story that the movie covers is as vital and compelling as anything you’ll see on screen this year, the directors’ overall approach is fairly conventional. RBG works as a standard bio of Ginsburg’s life. It highlights the major court cases in which she was involved throughout her career as a lawyer. We also see several significant portions of her testimony during her confirmation hearing to become a Supreme Court justice, complete with footage of then-senator Joe Biden beaming as he listens to her speak.
As I mentioned above, we also see Ginsburg’s recent transformation into something of an unlikely rock star. Her role in the Supreme Court over the last decade or so has transformed into that of “the dissenter.” Her no-nonsense approach to calling out the flaws in majority opinions with which she does not agree has become legendary. Indeed, Knizhnik was inspired to create the Notorious R.B.G. meme in response to Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The film gives us additional insight from Ginsburg to go along with the most stinging quote from her dissent in that case: “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.”
Cohen and West also do a fine job of chronicling the cases Ginsburg argued that would forever change how women were seen in the eyes of the law, especially with regard to equality in the work force. Before battling in the courts, she dealt with this inequality personally as one of the first women to attend law school in the 1950s. It seems insane that less than a century has passed since women were legally denied employment because of their sex. There are millions of women who experienced this, Ginsburg among them. She was instrumental in ending legally recognized sex discrimination, but Ginsburg, and the film, make the important point that this battle, and many others, are far from over.
The most poignant sections of RBG are the ones that chronicle Ginsburg’s 50+ year marriage to the love of her life, Martin. Right-wing carnival barkers like Mark Levin can frequently be heard on their radio or television programs denouncing Ginsburg as a zombie or a witch. Cohen and West begin RBG with staid shots of Washington, D.C. landmarks accompanied by audio clips from the likes of Levin and Sean Hannity spewing such epithets. The political right in general loves to paint liberals as morally bankrupt heathens with no respect for “traditional values.” The documentary shows the lie of that caricature when Ginsburg describes meeting her future husband as one of the most important things that ever happened to her.
She also emphasizes how significant the unique perspective of being a mother was to her determination to succeed when she entered law school. In Martin, she found a partner who appreciated her for who she was. He realized how vital her work was to the world, and he supported her dedication. That often meant leaving her alone for 12 to 16 hours at a time, only pulling her away from her work long enough to remind her to eat.
RBG is a documentary that wears its sympathies on its sleeve. Its subject is one of the most consequential people of the last 100 years, but this isn’t a warts-and-all type penetrating examination. The only detour the film takes into covering something controversial or negative about Ginsburg is when it briefly describes her unflattering comments about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Her disparaging comments about Trump were very out of the norm for a sitting Supreme Court justice. Cohen and West quickly smooth over even this small indiscretion when they include a clip of Sen. Orin Hatch, one of Ginsburg’s harshest critics, saying she is only human, and humans – even Supreme Court justices – sometimes make mistakes.
This lopsided view of Ginsburg aside, Notorious R.B.G.’s story is compelling and should serve as required viewing to understand what it means to fight for everyone to have equal protection under the law. She is a shining example of what it means to listen to what Abraham Lincoln once called the better angels of our nature. RBG is a worthy tribute to a living icon.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- RBG is both informative and inspiring, but it's conventional, straight-forward documentary filmmaking. It's worth a watch, but not groundbreaking.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Diversity in congress has only inched along in the 25 years since Ginsburg was confirmed to the Supreme Court, but it does look significantly different than it did then. The shots from her hearing that pan along the dais where the senators sit listening to her testimony are telling. Almost every senator is an old, white man (if I remember correctly, the one exception is Dianne Feinstein).
- Ginsburg's workout regimen is covered in the documentary, and it's pretty intense for a person her age. I aspire to that level of physical activity, should I live that long.
- RBG went 5 for 6 in the cases she argued in front of the Supreme Court as a lawyer. Yeah, she's a certified bad-ass.
- There's a big laugh when one of the people talking about Ginsburg says she can compartmentalize better than anyone when it comes to maintaining friendships with people she disagrees with politically. Specifically, this person was talking about the close friendship Ginsburg had with her fellow justice Antonin Scalia. It's a skill we would probably all do better to hone just a little.
- Which leads me to another thing RBG preaches that we should all heed. She is a believer that you should always make your argument in a calm, even tone, and never resort to yelling, because that never wins anyone over. That's something I could certainly be better at doing.
- The directors arranged to have their subject sit down and watch clips of Kate McKinnon portraying her on Saturday Night Live. Her reactions are priceless.
- One of Ginsburg's favorite quotes (she recites it more than once in the documentary), is a damn good one. It's by Sarah Grimké: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
- One really big missed opportunity of RBG is the topic of abortion. It's almost completely ignored. It would have been interesting to hear Ginsburg's recollections of the Roe v. Wade decision, and her thoughts on the current state of abortion rights in America.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- No problems during this screening. It was a really small crowd. I think there were maybe 6 of us in all. Several people were moved to applause at the end.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I think it only makes sense to follow up a contemplative, intimate portrait of a tireless warrior for justice with a review for the latest comic book movie. And, it's one featuring The Merc with a Mouth, no less. I'll be looking at Deadpool 2. The first installment was somewhat critically divisive, but I was a fan. Hopefully the sequel will be as much filthy fun as the original.