In the popular culture, most Supreme Court Justices fade into obscurity. Historians will note important figures, but few Justices fail to penetrate the social consciousness. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has managed to leave her mark on American history in more ways than one, and Betsy West & Julie Cohen’s documentary RBG serves as a loving tribute to her life and career. Although the film can be a bit much when its showing Ginsburg’s popularity among millennials and her place in pop culture, it’s far more effective when it shows how Ginsburg’s feminism and legal mind reshaped our country for the better.
West and Cohen take a fairly straightforward approach in telling Ginsburg’s story, kicking off with her current popularity (although the first few shots is of statues of white guys with audio of white male conservatives saying how much they hate her) and then simply following her from childhood to now. Throughout the movie, we get Ginsburg in her own words from interviews as well as interviews with friends, family, colleagues as well as old footage and audio recordings from her time arguing in front of the Supreme Court and giving dissenting opinions as an associate justice.
RBG works best when it shows how Ginsburg is a central player in the history of feminism in America. It’s not just that she’s popular or that she wears fun collars with her robes. It’s that she has a sharp legal mind and had to work twice as hard as any man. The documentary explains that Ginsburg’s skill isn’t just in how she was able to burn the candle at both ends, caring for her ill husband Marty and their infant daughter while also going to law school, but in how she was able to persuade people to her point of view. When you look at the cases Ginsburg argued and won in front of the Supreme Court, a court that was all men at the time, those victories helped reshape America and struck down laws supporting gender inequality.
It makes sense that the movie would also focus on Ginsburg’s newfound popularity, earning the title of ‘Notorious RBG,’ but there are times when that celebrity does her overall legacy a disservice. It’s fine to note her popularity and how much she means to young people, especially young women, but there are times when it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels and pointing to, “Hey, isn’t this cool?” I don’t really need to see what Ginsburg thinks about a SNL sketch about her because ultimately her achievements are more important. Celebrity is fleeting, but Ginsburg’s actual work endures.
The documentary also shines in showing the relationship between Ginsburg and her husband Marty. It’s a very sweet love story, but it also serves as an important lesson to every male viewer who might feel threatened if (gasp!) his wife were to become powerful and successful. Marty comes off as remarkably progressive for his time, never threatened by Ginsburg’s intelligence or work ethic. I was heartened to learn that even though he was one of the most successful tax lawyers in New York City, he moved to Washington, D.C. without hesitation when his wife became a federal judge. While it’s nice to learn that Ginsburg loves opera and has a good relationship with her grandkids, her healthy marriage is the most heartening aspect of her personal life.
RBG will not convert those angry voices at the beginning of the film, and it doesn’t intend to. It’s an unabashed celebration of one of the most popular and influential lawyers and jurists in American history. Although it can certainly veer into fan film from time to time, when it gets serious about Ginsburg’s impact on America, the documentary is a rousing cheer for her work and a call to arms to those who wish to follow in her footsteps.