Helen Tope reviews RBG, showing in our cinema until Thursday 21 March.
In a career spanning 60 years, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg – tough, gutsy and unapologetically liberal – has become an icon. In a new documentary, RBG explores the motivation of an 86-year-old woman, still working at the top of the legal profession.
At the centre of a movement to enshrine gender equality into law, Bader Ginsburg was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1993. RBG charts her progress, which was by no means assured. Graduating from Columbia in 1959, Bader Ginsburg could not find work as a lawyer anywhere in New York. Whilst her husband Martin thrived as a tax lawyer, Ruth went back to academia, teaching at Rutger Law School, and soon became involved in cases of gender equality. Taking several cases before the Supreme Court, a quietly-spoken Ginsburg quickly figured out that the key to persuading a white, exclusively male Supreme Court, would be to present her argument incrementally.
Cleverly bringing a case to Court of a male widower being denied state benefits on the basis of his gender (these benefits were only available to women), when the Supreme Court found in favour of Bader Ginsburg, it was increasingly difficult to accept a legal argument where discrimination on the basis of gender would be permissible.
Bader Ginsburg, in a series of interviews with film-makers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, admits that being right was not enough. The Supreme Court was populated by men buoyed up by power, wealth and privilege. The concept of discrimination based on gender would be utterly foreign to them – Bader Ginsburg won because she realised she would need to start from scratch. Building an argument, case by case, helped Ruth Bader Ginsburg to transform the everyday experience of American working women.
The documentary goes deeper than just the facts of RBG’s career – impressive though they are. We are taken behind the scenes, seeing Bader Ginsburg with her grand-daughter, newly-graduated from Harvard Law School. We learn that Bader Ginsburg still works ferociously long hours, operating on as little as 2-3 hours sleep. A steely presence in front of the camera, Cohen and West present a woman whose dedication to the law is absolute. At the same time, we are also shown a woman for whom family remains a priority. Married to Martin Ginsburg until his death in 2010, RBG is a success story built on team effort. Martin’s gregarious nature balanced out Ginsburg’s propensity for seriousness; he cooked whilst she studied. Since his death, Bader Ginsburg has filled her time with family and a devotion to the arts, in particular, opera. Surviving two episodes of cancer (including pancreatic), Ruth has begun working out with a personal trainer. From whatever angle this documentary covers, Bader Ginsburg shines through as quite extraordinary.
Now working under a Trump administration, and an overwhelmingly conservative Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become the dissenting voice against an increasingly homogenised brand of politics.
Using a blend of archive footage and interviews with friends and family, Bader Ginsburg’s career – she is one of four women to have served on the Supreme Court – is allowed to speak for itself. With film and audio material, the barriers Bader Ginsburg faced are presented for us to witness. The incredulous tone of an opponent who realises, too late, that he has been thoroughly bested by Bader Ginsburg, is particularly well-used. This film tells nothing but the truth, but you will still find yourself gaping at the smugness and complacency of a generation of men assuming that Bader Ginsburg’s meteoric rise is a blip on the radar.
When asked if she will retire, Ruth Bader Ginsburg contemplates the question for a moment, and simply answers that while she is still able to give her work the same rigour and focus, she will continue. Filmed sat at her desk, dwarfed by huge stacks of books, it is self-evident that for Bader Ginsburg, the law is not just a profession, it’s a calling.
As a feminist documentary, RBG wins in on every score. When the discrimination Bader Ginsburg faced was so blatant, no editorial slant from Cohen and West is necessary. As the film moves into the present day, the challenges she faces shift from the world of employment, to politics at the very highest level.
Her decades of work in gender equality have brought her acclaim from a whole new generation, and her image – the glasses, the intricate lace collars worn for Court – is emblazoned across the Internet. Fan pages, memes and merchandise have turned a legal stalwart into a superstar. But to read her rise as a cult figure as flippant would be a mistake. The projection of Ruth Bader Ginsburg into ‘The Notorious RBG’ stems from a desire to have an idol to look up to – someone who has really earned it. The Kardashians are no longer cutting it – this generation wants substance; reassurance that someone is paying attention. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is that dissenting voice, so crucial for a functioning democracy. She may not be winning as many fights, but a battle is being waged – publicly, vocally and politically. To underestimate RBG as a former great no longer at the height of her powers would also be a mistake. Now collating the experience and strategy amassed through her career, Bader Ginsburg is now participating in a much larger game.
In a rare misstep, Bader Ginsburg admitted her preference for one Presidential candidate over another, during the 2016 U.S Election. Her opponent of choice did not win, and one of President Trump’s first acts was to appoint two conservative judges to the Supreme Court, replacing more liberal colleagues.
Sitting in a mostly-conservative Supreme Court, Bader Ginsburg has befriended Antonin Scalia. A judge with wildly differing views to her own, Scalia and Bader Ginsberg have found common ground in their love of opera. Being able to compartmentalise the person from their views offers Bader Ginsburg a way forward in working with her colleagues. Barack Obama famously read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book ‘Team of Rivals’ in preparation for office. The book discusses how Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with men of differing opinions to create an environment that would challenge his ideals and make sure they stood up to criticism. Working under a President, who it’s safe to say, has never read ‘Team of Rivals’, Bader Ginsburg finds herself in a minority, but for her, this is nothing new. Bader Ginsburg works best from a position of perceived disadvantage – slowly but surely building an argument that becomes impossible to ignore or deny. Despite her age, the bouts of ill health, Bader Ginsburg is poised to make these years count. Based on what we see in this documentary, there is every indication that RBG’s greatest work is yet to come.