By Shelley A. Sackett
While Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s 2015 book, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” arguably branded Justice Ginsburg as a pop-cultural phenomenon, the recently released documentary, “RBG” leaves no room to mistake this woman for a fluffy contemporary trend. The diminutive 84-year-old intellectual powerhouse is fierce, uncompromising and a diplomatic champion of women’s rights. After 25 years on the Supreme Court, she remains a force to be reckoned with.
Ginsburg’s determination, courage and steadfast ability to drill down on overwhelming numbers of details are the weft in the fabric of her remarkable life. Even her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, calls her a “cyborg.”
Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen have crafted an unabashed valentine to the second woman and sixth Jew appointed to the US Supreme Court, peppering their film with interviews, public appearances, archival material and even a Trump tweet. In less than two hours, they cover a lot of ground.
Born to impoverished working-class immigrants, Ginsburg’s intellectual prowess was evident at a young age. She credits her mother in particular with encouraging her to reach her full potential.
Central to the film and to Ginsburg’s life is the story of her marriage to Marty Ginsburg, one year her senior, whom she met during her undergraduate days at Cornell. “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain,” she says. A gifted tax attorney, Marty was also his wife’s biggest supporter, holding down the domestic front while she made history and greasing the wheels behind the scene to ensure her name was on President Clinton’s list of candidates when Byron White retired from the Supreme Court.
Justice Ginsburg’s days at Harvard Law School planted the seed for her trailblazing fight for the rights of women and other marginalized groups. As one of only nine women in a class of 500, she recalls — with neither resentment nor belligerence — the dean asking her why she thought she deserved a seat that belonged to a man.
When her husband graduated a year ahead of her and took a job in New York, she transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated at the top of her class with distinction. Nonetheless, no firm would hire her. “Being a woman was an impediment,” she says.
Determined to remove that obstruction for others, she co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project while on the faculty at Rutgers University Law School and wrote the first legal casebook on gender-based discrimination. She also formulated a slow but steady legal strategy to end sex discrimination fashioned after Thurgood Marshall’s success at ending the US official policy of segregation.
She argued six cases before the Supreme Court (winning five), reasoning that the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment barred treating women differently than men, just as it barred racial discrimination. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg quite literally changed the way the world is for women,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg says during an on-screen interview.
Nowhere is that more evident than during Ginsburg’s Supreme Court Senate confirmation hearings, when she at times seems to play the role of patient professor lecturing the judiciary panel. “RBG” paints a memorable portrait of an extraordinarily hard-working woman, but it is also at its heart a primer in constitutional law.
Overall, despite its passion and solemnity, the film has a light touch, never diving deeply into the grit and controversy that must have swirled behind those hallowed judicial chambers. Ginsburg may be brainy and indomitable, but she is also charming and approachable.
That accessibility may explain why Teen Vogue, the e-magazine geared to teenage girls, touts an unlikely pair of stories on its recent home page. One features un-retouched photos of Rihanna’s new lingerie line. The other is “7 Essential Ruth Bader Ginsburg Supreme Rulings to Know About.”