June 18, 2018

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The Notorious RBG

Documentary examines U.S. Supreme Court justice's life

Photos by Magnolia Pictures</p><p>U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been serving in that post for over 20 years.</p></p>

Photos by Magnolia Pictures

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been serving in that post for over 20 years.

This peppy, crowd-pleasing documentary celebrates U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the diminutive octogenarian known for her scathing dissenting opinions and her stylish collection of jabots, many custom-made by her adoring supporters. Using upbeat music and quick-cut editing, filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen present Ginsburg as a kind of badass legal superstar — “the Notorious RBG” — who dazzles young liberal law students and inspires memes and merchandise.

Underneath all this contagious RBG-mania, the film also affirms Ginsburg’s deeply held belief that the law can keep the United States in touch with its best and most fundamental values.

At a time in America when we’ve seen the judicial branch of government acting as a democratic bulwark, this message feels urgent and important.

When Ginsburg was growing up in Brooklyn, her mother told her two things: “Be a lady” and “Be independent.” In private life, Ginsburg is quiet, polite and reserved, but in public life, her formidable mind and professional ambition eventually led her to the Supreme Court.

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This peppy, crowd-pleasing documentary celebrates U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the diminutive octogenarian known for her scathing dissenting opinions and her stylish collection of jabots, many custom-made by her adoring supporters. Using upbeat music and quick-cut editing, filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen present Ginsburg as a kind of badass legal superstar — "the Notorious RBG" — who dazzles young liberal law students and inspires memes and merchandise.

Underneath all this contagious RBG-mania, the film also affirms Ginsburg’s deeply held belief that the law can keep the United States in touch with its best and most fundamental values.

At a time in America when we’ve seen the judicial branch of government acting as a democratic bulwark, this message feels urgent and important.

When Ginsburg was growing up in Brooklyn, her mother told her two things: "Be a lady" and "Be independent." In private life, Ginsburg is quiet, polite and reserved, but in public life, her formidable mind and professional ambition eventually led her to the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School in the 1950s, one of nine women among more than 500 men, and in her second year made the law review. When she graduated, not one New York firm would hire her.

Magnolia Pictures / The Associated Press</p><p>U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a scene from 'RBG.'</p></p>

Magnolia Pictures / The Associated Press

U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a scene from 'RBG.'

Instead, she went to work on the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, helping to advance sweeping social change one hard-fought case at a time. She argued for women’s equal access to educational and economic opportunity. Demonstrating that gender-based discrimination hurts everyone, she also represented a widowed father who found he didn’t qualify for what was then called the "mother’s benefit" on grounds of his sex.

U.S. President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg for the Supreme Court in 1993, and we hear some of her moving speech given during the confirmation hearings.

She was confirmed 96-3, giving us a short, shining glimpse of a far less partisan time, and she continued to be consensus-building on the court, famously becoming friends with the right-wing Antonin Scalia, based on their shared love of opera. "What’s not to like?" Scalia says of Ginsburg in an archived interview. "Except her views on the law, of course."

The film could say more, perhaps, about Ginsburg’s views on the law. We do see some of her rulings, delivered in her cogent and concise writing, but Cohen and West spend more time with the woman herself, with a warm and revealing look at her early life, her long and happy marriage to Marty Ginsburg, a tax lawyer who was as outgoing and funny as Ruth was serious and shy, and their children and grandchildren.

RBG is hagiographic. The film unabashedly adores Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a human being and as a jurist.

But consider this: back in law school, when she was getting those incredible marks and making the law review, she was also looking after her 14-month-old daughter and her young husband, who had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing punishing radiation. She did it all, and she saw this as the making of her, because she had something that mattered to her beyond the law books.

So, hey, maybe she deserves a little hagiography.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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