Forget The Avengers Infinity War. Here’s a movie that’s really worth cheering about, entering the marketplace with the same quiet, unassuming, yet determined demeanor as its subject—legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As cunning as Loki, as grounded as Black Panther, she wields her opinion with the impact and precision of Thor’s hammer, and achieves actual change, fighting for gender equality under the law as she has for five decades of groundbaking decisions. And nary a special effect in sight—unless you count her incredible stamina to keep fighting the good fight at age 84.
According to Gloria Steinem, Ginsburg is “the closest thing to a superhero I know.” An opinion shared by many in this smart, sly and heartfelt documentary, RBG, by directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West. The title references the recent biographical book, Notorious RBG (inspired by the moniker of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.), a nod to the younger generations of fans who have discovered RBG on social media and weren’t even alive when she was fighting for things like equal pay and equal social security benefits in the workplace.
“Whenever she writes a dissent,” notes one of the younger observers in the film, “the internet explodes!” It’s sad that in these troubled political times, the actions that have recently made RBG such an unexpected social media icon are the clear and vigorous dissenting opinions she’s written in opposition to recent Supreme Court rulings. The Court has been shifting gradually to the right since RBG (nominated by Bill Clinton) was confirmed in 1993. In the current so-called administration, RBG is one of the few voices of sanity left on the bench.
But what a lot of people don’t know about RBG (particularly her younger fans) is the hard work and determination with which she chose a legal career, and how the obstacles she faced shaped her views on society and the law. This is the story told most persuasively by filmmakers Cohen and West. Studying law at Cornell University in 1957, RBG was one of nine women in a class of 500 men. (At a tea for those women, the dean asked “what they were doing taking a seat that should belong to a man.”)
Unable to get hired by a law firm, she got a teaching job at Rutgers, offering a course on women and the law, just as the Women’s Rights movement was becoming a thing. At this time, the early ’70s, she became a litigator, arguing gender-equality cases before the Supreme Court (winning five out of the six cases she brought). Selective in her choices, as one colleague notes, RBG “took cases that would make good laws.” Her mantra formed over this period was the conviction that “Gender-biased discrimination hurts everybody.”
The movie is also the appealing love story of Ruth and her husband of 57 years, Marty Ginsburg. “Marty was the first boy I ever knew who cared I had a brain,” Ruth recalls fondly. Big, bluff, and garrulous, always cracking jokes, while Ruth was small and quiet-spoken, Marty also became a practicing lawyer (they met in law school). But, wholly supportive of Ruth’s abilities, he took over much of the child-rearing and housekeeping so his wife could stay up until 4 a.m. working on her cases. (And still be in court by 9 a.m.) As their son and daughter laughingly recall, “Daddy did the cooking, and Mom did the thinking.”
The fruits of that thinking are also sprinkled throughout the movie, much of it in tasty footage from her 1993 confirmation hearing. Her hopes for the future of the High Court? “More women and different complexions.” Asked what the “ideal number of female judges on the Supreme Court” should be, she deadpans, “Nine.”
And while she says, as a litigator, she felt like a kindergarten teacher educating the white, male Justices on gender politics, her message as explained in this movie is extremely clear and simple: “Equal protection for every person under the law.” Period.
***1/2 (out of four)
With Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. A Magnolia release. Rated PG. 98 minutes.