Yes, she’s become a meme, idolized by generations of young American women, imitated to hilarious hip hop effect by “Saturday Night Live’s” Kate McKinnon, “Notorious RBG.”
But the movie “RBG” just glances at that. But Betty West and Julie Cohen’s documentary gets at the accomplishments that made Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserving of her place on the U.S. Supreme Court, and celebrated for growing place within American culture.
“Celebrated” — that’s the only word for it. It’s a Ginsburg portrait, largely in her own words and almost exclusively those of her fans — her children, college classmates, peers, media figures, old friends, politicians.
She is a shy, quiet opera lover, a “horrible cook,” widow of a much more gregarious (and funny) lawyer-husband, a woman who almost from birth it was said, “She didn’t do small talk. She didn’t go girl chat. A deep thinker,” two old pals declare.
And she and is a boundary breaking legal mind for the ages. College in the Cornell of the 1950s — “Cornell was a preferred school for daughters…They kind of suppressed how smart they were,” facing sexism in Harvard Law School, already a mother, with a husband sick with cancer, and yet she still made The Law Review. Following her husband after he graduated and landed a New York law firm gig, she went to Columbia, getting a law degree that made her almost unemployable in New York.
It was as a Rutgers professor teaching 1960s “Gender and the Law” courses, getting involved with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. She took as her example, Thurgood Marshall’s approach to finding cases that could change Civil Rights law.
An Air Force woman here — “Nice girls didn’t file lawsuits,” former Air Force officer Sharron Frontiero cracks — another discriminatory law challenged there, and Ginsburg had her start — building the cases that moved America toward equal rights for women.
We hear the audio recording of her first argument before the Supreme Court.
“I ask no favor for my sex,” she quoted (and still quotes) 19th century Abolitionist Sarah Grimke, “all I ask of our brethren is that they take their boot our necks”
“She captured, for the (Supreme) Court, what being a second class citizen was like,” a colleague remembers.
Through a canny collection of cases — some wins, some losses, some focusing on gender discrimination against women, and in one memorable case, arguing for equal “mother’s benefits” for the surviving parent, the father, from Social Security.
“It was like knitting a sweater,” one contemporary says of her methodical case-law approach. All of this led to the day when President Bill Clinton cast out his notion of putting New York Governor Mario Cuomo on the Supreme Court in 1993.
The film uses home movies, testimony from Ginsburg’s confirmation hearings and interviews to build its portrait of RBG.
Senator Orrin Hatch reflects on how much disagrees with her now, and disagreed with positions then, and echoes the admiration he expressed way back then.
We also get a sampling of her highest profile opinions, beginning with the gender discrimination case against the State of Virginia and the state-supported all-male military school, The Virginia Military Institute.
Her children, James and Jane Ginsburg, humanize Ginsburg.
And NPR’s Supreme Court reporter, Nina Totenberg, Ginsburg’s biggest cheerleader, weighs in frequently about how her court persona and the meme version of RBG — underscored by Dessa performing her feminist rap, “The Bullpen” — is in contrast with the shy woman Ginsburg is in person.
Hearing her take apart, representing Virginia, future Solicitor General Ted Olson (on tape) is humbling. Seeing her triumphant return to the school decades later might move you to tears.
Her dissenting greatest hits, most famously in the twisted “logic” of the 2000 presidential election decision, are recounted. They have become more frequent and more biting as a very conservative Court dials back the clock on voting rights and the like in the past 20 years.
Catching the first time she sees SNL’s McKinnon’s hilarious riff on her persona is worth the price of admission. Sober RBG cackles the way the rest of us did the first time we caught “a Third Degree GinsBURN.”
“RBG” has the sort of decorum largely vanished from American politics and American life these days. Even the few foes who show up on camera are polite, gracious (in defeat, in Olson’s case) and right on the edge of admiration. Even her polar opposite, Justice Antonin Scalia, vacationed with her and made jovial joint public appearances that never got heated, despite the paper cuts of deathly-serious repartee.
It’s that tone that makes “RBG” worth seeing in theaters, the shock value of seeing people agreeably disagree . No, there are NOT enough dissenting voices in the film, she’s that popular.
But it’s jarring to see the turn the film, and the country take, away from civility, a steady march toward equal rights and the profane, law-flouting death-to-mine-enemies, progress-torching culture we’re moved into.
MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements and language
Cast: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Orrin Hatch
Credits:Directed by Betty West and Julie Cohen. A Magnolia/CNN Films release.
Running time: 1:38