When she first earned her law degree, she couldn't get a position with any firm simply because she was a woman. Six decades later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg sat on the Supreme Court, and had found her way into pop culture. In the 2018 documentary RBG, viewers get a look at the highlights of her legal career and personal details of a woman who'd make her views known, regardless of whether she sided with the majority of her fellow justices or not. By the time she entered law school, she had already married her husband, Marty, who would himself become a highly respected tax attorney in New York. They had also started a family. In spite of the demands of family and law school, Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class, where she was just one of nine women in the program. Even with recommendations from Marty and other men, she did not get hired by any law firm.
Instead, she took her knowledge of law to the classroom for over a decade. In the 1970s, Ginsburg was, in a time where traditional roles were changing, asked to argue cases of gender discrimination before the Supreme Court. Included in her cases were that of a woman in the Air Force denied equal rights in housing and a single father who left his job to raise his child after his wife died. She would argue in front of the nation's highest court six times, winning five of her cases. Her work led to a nomination to a spot in Washington DC on the US Court Of Appeals by Jimmy Carter, and a spot on the highest court by Bill Clinton. People took note of the opinions she rendered from the bench, and the passion of her writings gained notice outside the legal community. A book even gave the justice an amusing nickname - Notorious RBG.
RBG was released the same year the biopic On The Basis Of Sex. Unlike the biopic, women hold the key positions behind the scenes on the documentary. Helming and producing RBG are the team of Betsy West and Julie Cohen in their first collaboration (their documentary about Julia Child is due for release in 2021). The other producers, as well as the cinematographer, editor, and film scorer are all females. West and Cohen get perspective on the cases Ginsburg took to her future employer from Gloria Steinem and NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg. Ginsberg's children, Jane and James, provide their memories of having her as a mother. Granddaughter Clara Spera, herself a law school graduate, shares how law school has changed so much over 60 years. Notorious RBG authors Shannon Khizhnik and Irin Camron share their views on the justice, and the reason they chose to write about her. RBG is not as in depth as other documentaries, but the film has plenty of overview and anecdotes to inform viewers.
The best thing about this movie is Justice Ginsburg herself. As much as her way of doing things in court receives notice, she is a very low-key person herself. Dissent with other justices never translates into animosity. As an example, Ginsburg often stood on the opposite side of an issue with fellow justice Antonin Scalia. However, they both enjoyed opera, and once made a cameo appearance at one of the works they loved. Marty Ginsburg, who died in 2010, appears in archive footage, and shows a very supportive man who was more outgoing than the woman he loved. The filmmakers even introduce Justice Ginsburg to the impression of her that Kate McKinnon did on Saturday Night Live. The real RBG was as amused by McKinnon as she was happy to point out the Brooklyn roots of herself and the rapper Notorious BIG.
The beginning and end of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's career in law had one unfortunate thing in common. Certain people called on Americans to be loyal to their country, and too often questioned anyone they believed might not have sufficient allegiance. They not only missed the mark far too often, they also thought themselves to be the ultimate arbiter of such matters. RBG shows a thoughtful woman and justice who understood the world was filled with various viewpoints, and accepted the world didn't have to fall in line with one side or the other. She didn't hold opposing viewpoints against anyone. She did, however, make sure her views were carefully articulated, whether or not she sided with the majority. Along the way, she did make a difference by convincing others that change will inevitably be necessary.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give RBG 3.5 stars. A favorable verdict.
© 2020 Pat Mills