When she was growing up, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s beloved mother Celia gave her two lessons to guide her through life: “Be a lady” and “Be independent.” That two-pronged approach appears to have influenced every aspect of the Supreme Court justice’s life, both personal and political. In Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s wide-ranging “RBG,” Ginsburg’s life — and its many lessons, both learned and taught — come to entertaining and energetic life. It’s a fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing documentary that makes one heck of a play to remind people of Ginsburg’s vitality and importance, now more than ever.
Ginsburg has never shied away from tough stuff, and West and Cohen echo that approach during the film’s opening credits, which include a slew of slurs unleashed against the associate justice during her long tenure (terms like “anti-American,” a “zombie,” and “vile” are tossed around, while our own president pipes in to call her a “disgrace”). When Ginsburg finally appears on screen, she’s working out while wearing a bright purple sweatshirt bearing two words: “super diva.” The message is clear: She’s tough as nails, and she couldn’t care less what the haters think. That’s only the half of it.
Relatively straightforward in its telling, the film takes a linear approach to the bulk of Ginsburg’s life. Ginsburg is on hand to talk her way through, initially reflecting back on a childhood spent wanting to do things “that the boys did.” Other talking heads include childhood friends, reporters who have long covered the justice beat, her own family, her official biographers, the social media mavens who helped popularize the “Notorious RBG” nickname, even Bill Clinton.
“RBG” serves as a compelling Ginsburg primer, and West and Cohen are understandably interested in driving home just how fully she fought back sexism at every stage of her professional life, from her experience at Harvard Law to her first steps into full-time work to her Supreme Court appointment.
Yet it’s the insights into her personal life that feel the most vital, moving “RBG” beyond the kind of information you could read on a Wikipedia page (as ably and entertainingly rendered as they may be on the big screen). These include her bond with her granddaughter (also a Harvard grad) and her decidedly forward-thinking husband Marty, even her unlikely friendship with fellow judge Antonin Scalia. “RBG” makes the case for Ginsburg as a hero, but for all aspects of her life, not just the splashy cases that help shape the nation.
It’s in depicting some of those cases that “RBG” finally gets ambitious, using the second half of the film to drill down on some of Ginsburg’s most defining judgments – first as a lawyer and advocate, then as a Supreme Court justice – and showing off the full scope of her impact on the judicial world. West and Cohen do a lot with a little, utilizing voice-only recordings (spiced up with on-screen graphics) and intimate interviews with involved parties to contextualize Ginsburg’s most notable works.
But what might be most inspiring about Ginsburg – and “RBG,” which is as rooted in the present as possible – is how she’s continued to hammer away at her dreams and her desires, even when buffeted back by forces she can’t control. Asked when she’ll leave the bench, she’s clear: when she can no longer give it her full passion and fire. “RBG” makes it clear that that day isn’t coming any time soon. Ginsburg’s evolution is the evolution of America, a story as necessary as ever, as America continues to slip backward, even as Ginsburg continues to push forward.
“RBG” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.