Directors: Julie Cohen, Betsy West
With biopic On The Basis Of Sex currently playing in cinemas, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is having something of a career victory lap at the movies. Complimenting the dramatised version of her life starring Felicity Jones (or perhaps showing it up) is this delightful documentary from Julie Cohen and Betsy West, available to stream from Curzon Home Cinema. It’s a rosy, light-footed celebration of one of the most remarkable women in modern American history, now embraced by the millennial meme-making community with the same enthusiasm as Jeff Goldblum.
The film is introduced in a blaze of soundbites, media and SNL sketch clips, acknowledging that her peers jovially call her “the Notorious RBG”, that to her childhood friends she is “Kicky”, and to her family she has become “Bubbe”; the Yiddish word for grandmother. In this way the film quickly separates Ginsburg from her legend to locate a more keenly knowable person. But the legend is quite something. Building a chronological narrative makes sense. She speaks candidly about her experiences as a rank outsider at Harvard in 1957 – already a parent to a 14-month-old – and how the disparity of treatment and representation she encountered spurred her on to strive for greater equality in the United States.
Cohen and West also underscore Ginsburg’s intense work ethic during this time and since; sleeping only two hours a night during the week; catching up on weekends. Along the way RBG becomes a reflecting pool for the expansion of liberal values in the US, charting her career against societal upheavals like the civil rights movement as well as landmark cases in American legal history.
“Nice girls didn’t file lawsuits,” goes one spicy soundbite, evidencing the attitudes being faced by Ginsburg at the start of her career. RBG isn’t about to waste time discussing the merits of equality, but rather sets forth as a flat-out rejection of subjugation. That sense of no-nonsense forward momentum is extremely giving. RBG feels as though it exists on a boundless updraft. It’s a film as optimistic as it is grateful for Ginsburg and her contribution.
Now in her eighties, Ginsburg appears for interview for the film and is also followed by the filmmakers. Her late life vigor and vitality recalls the similarly celebratory Iris by Albert Maysles, which followed fashion designer Iris Apfel. Indeed, some of the most enjoyable sequences here occur when RBG settles on Ginsburg talking to rapt audiences. Rows of inspired young men and women attending Q&As. In turn the film itself becomes inspirational, especially in the fat floating face of Donald Trump.
Not for nothing, her husband Marty makes for a fine role model for men watching who may be uncertain of how to support an ambitious and driven career woman and idealist. Honestly, the archival footage of the two of them being interviewed together is too damned sweet. The middle of the picture covers her swearing-in as a Supreme Court Justice in 1993 and takes pains to position Ginsburg as a relative centralist on that esteemed board of individuals, doing her best to strike balance among her new peers across the political spectrum. As the climate of the court changed, so Ginsburg moved herself to the left to sustain said balance. What’s particularly enjoyable to see here are those that have opposed Ginsburg acknowledging that, damn, they went up against the best.
Under other circumstances one might knock a document like RBG for its rose-tinted bias; call it a puff-piece or hagiography. But such is Ginsburg’s contribution to society – and her great charm as a person – that this kind of unabashed celebration seems wholeheartedly justified. The legacy is significant. Cohen and West bring exuberance to the table; a clear love for their subject and the nous for how to transmit this feeling.