It’s been a little less than six months since Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87. Before her death, Ginsburg’s vocal dissents on the Supreme Court and her status as one of the longest serving female justices gave her a certain cache. Art and pop culture came to immortalize the “notorious RBG.” In 2018, the documentary riffing off that designation, simply titled “RBG,” secured two Oscar nominations for its look at Ginsburg’s life and career. It was then followed by Mimi Leder’s scripted biopic, “On the Basis of Sex.”
Ginsburg’s death rocked an already bleak 2020, and as the government slowly starts to come out of things, complete with a new President and a predominately conservative Supreme Court, audiences are getting a new documentary: Freida Lee Mock’s “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words.” Premiering on Starz, the film’s premise is simple: Using archival footage of Ginsburg herself, the audience sees how she viewed her life and career, as well as the landmark court cases that changed gender representation.
Mock doesn’t follow the traditional documentary path, probably because “RBG” already did that. As the title implies, a majority of the feature consists of Ginsburg’s own recorded discussions, whether that be at the opening of a moot court named in her honor or speaking to a group of Indianapolis schoolchildren. This is a great conceit, especially if you’ve already seen the more traditional documentary and are looking for a first-person telling of Ginsburg’s life as she was living it.
Much of the footage Mock employs is from over 20 years ago, when Ginsburg was teaching at Columbia and after former President Bill Clinton inducted her in the Supreme Court. Audiences can hear Ginsburg talk about herself, especially during a time when the Supreme Court (and really politics) felt so different compared to today. She passionately recalls every facet of the cases she worked prior to her Supreme Court appointment, and you can hear the warmth she has for each of them. Being marginalized and underestimated, she felt for the people at the center of these cases.
The real fascination felt watching “Ruth” comes from hearing about her Supreme Court cases, only a few of which were discussed in “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex.” The one looked at the longest is that of Lilly Ledbetter, a woman who had worked for Goodyear Tires in 1979 and discovered her pay was half of what her male colleagues received in the same position. The case would eventually inspire the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. It’s obvious to see why Ledbetter’s case gets the most significant look considering the legislation that passed under President Obama, but because of its prominence already, it’d have been great to see other cases get a lengthier look.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t look at them, just not for as much runtime as the more well-noted others. Seeing her attempts to subvert gender expectations by looking at cases where men were discriminated based on gender remains amazing. Over the last few years of her time on the Court, Ginsburg became known as “the great dissenter” and the use of animation gives audiences a look at how Ginsburg argued against cases that came before her, many of which were aimed at paring back rights for women.
The documentary also aims at letting Ginsburg talk about the people in her life, most notably her marriage with husband, Martin Ginsburg, and her friendship with conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. There’s a wonderful clip of Martin Ginsburg talking about meeting Ruth for the first time, and these few moments with him are so darling to see. Their love story has been recounted so often, but to see the proof in the pudding by the way he lovingly recounts how “cute” she was and how smart she is will give you all the feels. There’s a similar sense of appreciation between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Scalia, which looks into their relationship without necessarily muddying the waters by discussing politics.
But for a feature subtitled “In Her Own Words,” there’s a tendency to eschew that format when it’s not convenient. As the feature introduces talking heads, like author Irin Carmon, they break the narrative to lay out why Ginsburg is important, as if that needs to be emphasized more than watching the court cases themselves play out. There’s a tendency toward believing the audience is losing interest or needs additional help with things. Case in point, Ginsburg discussing being a Jewish child living during World War II. As she tells the story, clips of Adolf Hitler and swastikas are spliced in, just in case you forget why her speaking about the topic is so serious.
“Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” is a different way to interact with the legendary Supreme Court justice, even if the conceit doesn’t last the entirety of the runtime. There is a tendency to overly explain things as opposed to letting Ginsburg’s words flow, but if you’ve enjoyed the previous looks at the notorious RBG, this is a new one offers a different angle to her remarkable story.
“Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” premieres Monday, March 1 at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.