“RBG” A Revelatory Work of the Modern Icon
“Witch” – “Evildoer”- “Monster” – “Disgrace”- “Vile Human Being” – “Anti-American”
All of these words are heard describing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the beginning of Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s engaging and informative documentary RBG, a work that will likely not sway those who ignorantly oppose her role in our system of checks and balances to change their minds, but may foster admiration for those who only have a cursory knowledge of her background and work.
From the start, Cohen and West signal that this will be a laudatory work, as we see admirers, as well as some that would oppose her (Senator Orin Hatch at her senate conformation hearing), singing her praises or conceding she is a woman of great intelligence and integrity. We soon find out why, Ginsburg relates anecdotes from her Brooklyn childhood of the 1930’s and find that her immigrant parents, like some many others like them, insisted that their daughter attend college and get as much education as possible. Getting her undergraduate degree from Cornell (where she was one of only nine women in a class 500) and graduating from Harvard Law in 1959, dealing with sexual discrimination every step of the way. Having lost a younger sister and her mother when she was on the verge of graduating high school certainly didn’t help.
This background is necessary in truly understanding what makes this seemingly indomitable woman tick. Forced to overcome one obstacle after another in order to succeed, Ginsburg’s resolve only strengthens over the years, dissenting or questioning the so-called norm becoming second nature to her.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is a review of the significant cases Ginsburg was involved with and how they impacted American law, most taken and ruled on in the interest of equal rights between men and women. Weinberger vs. Wiesenfeld dealt with social security benefits being available to widowers as well as widows, Califano vs. Goldfarb dealt with equal survivor benefits for both sexes, Edwards vs. Healy argued that women have the right to get out of jury duty. Winning five out the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court, she established herself as not only one of the preeminent attorneys of her time, but one of the leading feminists as well.
Ginsburg comes off as assured and self-effacing while being interviewed for the film, a woman with fierce ties to her family as well as one constantly looking for a new challenge. The opening sequence that shows her energetically working out with her trainer to the strains of a rap song is indicative of her attitude towards life and her work.
The irony of her becoming a pop icon (“The Notorious RBG”) isn’t lost on Ginsburg but it’s meant with good humor. How her rap-inspired moniker came about and how she’s been championed by today’s generation is explored as well, social media playing a large role in her current popularity as well as her willingness to embrace this reinvention.
It would be easy to discount RBG as a piece of hagiography, a film made to preach to the choir the purpose of which is to tout a liberal on the high court in a time when voices like hers are being drowned out by reactionary ignorance. That may be the case, but so what. All of the facts in the documentary check out and as such, they give Gloria Steinem’s comment that “she’s the closest thing a superhero I know,” credence. Oh, did I mention Ginsburg beat cancer twice? Yeah, there’s that too.