U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. Courtesy of CNN Films.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the soft-spoken superhero for our times. Known as the Notorious RBG, story is told in RBG, a new documentary making its world premiere this weekend at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Ginsburg’s story is told by co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen and they do right by the justice. The filmmakers get the time of unprecedented access that’s needed to tell her story.
The release of RBG comes as the justice marks her 25th year of service on the high court. In many ways, RBG serves as the definitive biography of the justice as filmmakers take us on a journey back to her early days prior to becoming the icon she is today. Ginsburg was to the women’s rights movement what the late Justice Thurgood Marshall was to the racial equality movement. Whereas Marshall gave the justice a supporting role, Ginsburg is front-and-center as her story gets told through interviews with family, friends, and more. Some of them know her not as Ruth or Justice Ginsburg but Kiki. Similarly, Oscar-nominated actress Felicity Jones is set to star in an upcoming biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
West and Cohen weave in the interviews with archived footage of the confirmation hearings, photographs, and home videos. As they cover her career both as a women’s rights advocate and a Supreme Court Justice, they find a way to tie in her writings with a tell-all interview of Ginsburg. It’s because of this that RBG feels like the movie that many wanted Marshall to be. The justice, who turns 85 years old in March, opens up on her life from the advice her mother gave her to her marriage to Marty and how he made her career possible. We’re provided an inside look at her family life, including a conversation with her granddaughter, who has a scholar/student relationship in addition to the typical family relationship.
The advice given to Ginsburg from her mother was to “be a lady” and “be independent.” Told to her before graduating high school, they are life-long lessons and the message Ginsburg received was to “be able to fend for yourself.”
Ginsburg was a victim of sexism early in her career and this led her to become a women’s rights advocate for life. Graduating from Columbia in 1959, not a single firm in New York City was willing to give her a chance because women just weren’t hired as attorneys. “Being a woman was an impediment,” the justice says. There were hundreds of thousands of laws on the table during this era that discriminated against women. She used Marshall’s battle as a blueprint for her own battle for women’s equality and each case helped advance the cause.
President Bill Clinton, who nominated her to the Supreme Court, talks about how partisan things are now compared to 1993, when Ginsburg’s confirmation passed with a 96-3 vote in support.
The film opens up to a backdrop of Washington, DC with soundbites of her critics but viewers are treated to her exercise workouts. There’s no shortage of surprises with the Notorious RBG, a nickname that gets discussed in the film and she’s not complaining. Ginsburg doesn’t watch television but is seen reacting to Kate McKinnon’s impression on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, calling the performance “obviously funny” but in no way does it remind her of herself.
Two days after the Trump inauguration, Ginsburg had a speaking role in an opera being performed at the Washington National Opera and filmmakers capture the backstage rehearsals.
The justice has no plans to step down anytime soon despite having two previous cancer battles. She’s in it for the long haul. Whether or not a book gets written, this film will help paint her legacy.