RBG (Documentary Review)
Going into a matinee showing of RBG on Memorial Day last May, I was surprised at the number of people in the audience. The movie had been out for a couple weeks at this point and it was a nice, sunny holiday Monday. ‘Surely, there won’t be too many folks’ was something I thought on my drive to the theater. I was utterly mistaken, as the showing ended up selling out. Even after a couple weeks, there was still a desire to see this documentary about the legendary Supreme Court Justice and for good reason.
The documentary is comprised of interviews, old photos and videos, and court testimony and writing from Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s long legal career, both before and during her tenure on the Supreme Court. The documentary interviews RBG herself about what it’s been like being a woman in the legal profession, conversations with old colleagues, classmates, family, and interviews with those who’ve been inspired by RBG. But it’s not just her law career that’s shown on the screen, as you really get a sense of who this now celebrated icon really is as a person.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg was born in Brooklyn in 1933 and eventually went to Cornell for undergrad and both Harvard and Columbia for law school. Her mother played a huge role in her life but sadly died the day before RBG’s high school graduation. Despite that, you can see the impact that her mother had on Ruth. Throughout the film, RBG is described as a quiet but determined person and it’s clear that her mother’s lessons of never reacting in anger and being independent played a huge role in who Ruth became.
- The RBG Movie Will Make You Angry, Then Determined by Natalie Gontcharova, Refinery29
Through the documentary, you get a sense of just what RBG and many of the women like her faced in the professional and academic realm. Despite being an exceptional student (even making it to the Harvard Law Review in her second year), RBG was frequently asked why she thought she deserved a man’s space in the school. And after graduating from Columbia Law School, she struggled to find any sort of law firm in all of New York City that would hire her.
Eventually, Ruth found her own place in the legal profession and after a few years, helped found the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project with Brenda Feigen. Her work with the Women’s Rights Project found legal cases that argued gender equality in the courts and during RGB’s time with the project, she argued six different cases in front of the Supreme Court and won five of them!
The film really underscores the fact that Ruth’s approach to changing the world for the better was and still is very different than many others. While there were many women in the street demanding much needed change during this time, Ruth’s work arguing legal cases helped to move the country towards equality and justice. She may not have been protesting out in the streets but her work was still vital to the women’s movement. Activism and social change doesn’t always look exactly the same.
- Beyond the ‘Gins-burn’: The documentary ‘RBG’ shows the formidable soft power of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Kenneth Turan, The LA Times
Throughout the film, you also get to see just how important Ruth’s husband was to her and her career, as they clearly had an exceptional amount of love and respect for each other. Marty Ginsberg supported her desire to go into law and even lead the fight for her nomination to the Supreme Court in the early 1990s. You really get to see just how devoted they both were to each other and to their careers and just how much Marty respected Ruth for her mind (an exception during the 1950s/60s sadly).
While the film doesn’t particularly address race in many contexts (and many of those interviewed looked white), it was still a great film to watch. You get a sense of who RBG is past the memes and legal writings and come to understand her as a full person. The film finds that balance between talking about her as a person (like her love of opera!) and her important work over the last six or so decades. It would be near impossible to fit everything about her life, work, and the context of what she faced in just an hour and a half but this documentary does a really great job talking about a legendary woman.
Pairs well with:
- A sense of justice and equality
- Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
- The podcast ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ with Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow