At some point, they started showing up in costume. After “RBG” earned an extended standing ovation at its Sundance Film Festival premiere, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary was anointed as one of the year’s biggest crowdpleasers. Subsequent festival showings proved to be just as vibrant, and by the time the film arrived in theaters in early summer, audience participation became the expectation: a gavel here, a robe there, wannabe RBGs everywhere you look.
“You have people, men and women of all ages, who seem to come together around RBG, and that’s really cool,” West said. “The other day we were at a screening in Santa Barbara and there were five women standing in the third row with complete outfits.”
Added Cohen, “Not to just festivals, even just regular screenings at theaters, almost every screening we go to, there’ll be at least one person, be it an 80-year-old woman or a six-year-old girl, dressed as RBG. Sixty-five-year-old women with their little sparkly gavels! I don’t know where they got them, but there they were.”
Such is the galvanizing power of Ginsburg’s story. “RBG” is the directors’ first film together: Cohen is best known for her moving doc “American Veteran,” while this is West’s first directorial effort after nearly two decades as a producer. Both were inspired by Ginsburg’s life and career, and hoped their film could capture the power of her work without the overweening earnestness that West described as “eat your vegetables.”
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg really laid the groundwork that has become so relevant for women who are fighting for their rights,” she said. “There’s something about her story that just makes people feel good and inspires people. Often people will say, ‘I really liked her, I thought she was great, I had no idea. I didn’t know about the cases that she argued in the ’70s, her role as a women’s rights litigator. I didn’t know about the love story.’ It’s pretty gratifying.”
The decades-spanning film provides a comprehensive look at Ginsburg’s life and the appeal for equal rights that has always been central to her ideology and work. “One of the great principles of feminism is that the personal is political,” said Cohen. “So, I think our film works that in, too.”
West added, “We wanted this film to tell the very important story about what happened in the ’70s that transformed America and the way women are treated in America, but we also wanted to tell about this extraordinary woman. The task in the edit room was to find the connections to allow you to go back and forth in time. We didn’t want to tell a straight chronological story that started, ‘Oh, she was born in Brooklyn, and then she went here…’ The idea was to really weave in the verite of her today with the storytelling.”
While Ginsburg had “no editorial control” over the film’s content, a number of scenes feature the Supreme Court Justice in the present day. Cohen said that broke another important boundary. “Of all the things that you don’t see enough of in movies, it’s 85-year-old heroines,” she said. “There’s a sense of, ‘Nobody wants to see old people’ or ‘Nobody wants to see old women.’ RBG has, of all the things she’s shattered in her life, she’s completely shattered that barrier, that an 85-year-old woman can’t be one of the coolest people in the country.”
“RBG” also addresses Ginsburg’s transformation into a pop cultural icon, the elderly woman who inspired a surprising range of memes (“Notorious RBG,” the world’s most unlikely melding of judge and famous rapper) and is hip enough and smart enough to embrace them.
“What I think is kind of cool is that when this ‘Notorious RBG’ thing happened, she didn’t have any role in creating that,” West said. “She probably didn’t know what a blog was, and then people are tweeting and memes and everything else. … She thinks it’s really a hoot. She gets the joke, she knows that some of it is funny, but she also knows that it’s a way of spreading her message. It’s the way that people who don’t pay close attention to the writings of justices in the Supreme Court are paying attention to what she says and what she believes.”
More than anything, “RBG” succeeds at presenting its larger-than-life subject as an actual person. “She’s no one but herself,” Cohen said. “And her determination and everything she’s done, whether it’s fighting sexism, or doing a plank, is right there on her face. And I find it really, really moving. When we watched her doing her workout, when we were in the room seeing it for the first time, we weren’t laughing, it wasn’t funny. It was beautiful. I wanted to cry. We all burst into applause at the end.”
West added, “I feel like we really learned something about her character watching that, that’s true of a lot of different aspects of her life. ‘While I’m in the midst of doing it, 100% of my focus is on that.’ And every time we filmed verite footage, I’ve never met a documentary character who was so not caring about the camera. If she’s doing a thing, she’s doing that thing.”
“RBG” the film has been doing its own thing for nearly 10 months, and as the film glides into awards season — already armed with a Cinema Eye Honors nomination, two nods from the Critics’ Choice Doc Awards, and a CCDA win for Ginsburg as one of the year’s “Most Compelling Living Subjects of a Documentary” — Cohen and West are still marveling at the kind of audience that will dress up as an octogenarian Supreme Court Justice to show their admiration and respect.
“Truthfully, the nicest thing is audiences that wouldn’t ordinarily go to a documentary film are just responding as a story,” Cohen said. “It just feels like she, as a character, really is a way in to all these big-picture issues and real people are seeing our film and are getting that. … A serious, substantive movie about constitutional law? That seems like something that people aren’t gonna want to see. RBG the person has really, I think, changed that. And hopefully ‘RBG’ the movie helps too.”
“RBG” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital platforms.