“RBG” — 3 stars — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg; PG (thematic elements and language); in general release
Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary “RBG” examines the life and career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s a thorough and insightful film, though your final takeaway will likely depend on whether your ideology differs from the judge.
From the first time we hear Ginsburg speak in “RBG,” quoting 19th-century abolitionist Sarah Grimke, the theme of her career is clear: “I ask no favor for my sex,” she says, “… all I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.”
Over the course of 98 minutes, “RBG” traces Ginsburg’s life and career, often centering in on her passionate work on equal rights between genders.
Early on we learn a bit about Ginsburg’s childhood in Brooklyn, and how her mother died when the future justice was a teenager. Ginsburg’s mother counseled her to “be a lady” and “be independent,” and “RBG” makes it clear that those lessons stuck.
For a documentary so focused on a justice connected to women’s rights, it’s interesting to see how much of “RBG” focuses on Ginsburg’s relationship with her late husband, Marty, who she met at Cornell University in the 1950s. As the documentary follows through the different stages of her career — at Harvard and then Columbia Law School, working equal rights cases in the 1970s and finally reaching the Supreme Court in 1993 — “RBG” makes frequent stops along the way to illustrate how Marty’s health or the couple’s different professional opportunities provided challenges — but not roadblocks — to their marriage.
But while her marriage is a connecting thread, the meat of “RBG” follows through her involvement with different landmark cases, first arguing before the Supreme Court in 1973 and eventually tracing through several key cases she heard on the Supreme Court herself beginning in the 1990s, including a significant case involving the formerly all-male Virginia Military Institute.
Everything culminates in the creation of a kind of rock star persona for Ginsburg, who has been lovingly dubbed the “Notorious RBG” (referencing the 1990s rapper Notorious B.I.G.) for the diminutive octogenarian’s frequent dissentions to the court’s majority rulings.
It’s pretty clear that the people behind “RBG” agree with those dissentions, and political opponents to the liberal justice may be tempted to poke holes in the film’s narrative from time to time. But Cohen and West do a good job of bringing in a few dissenting voices of their own, including longtime Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, and it’s especially amusing to see the film’s examination of Ginsburg's unexpected friendship with conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.2 comments on this story
The film also draws from other familiar faces — including women’s rights advocate Gloria Steinem and former President Bill Clinton — in order to flesh out Ginsburg’s portrait. And we hear plenty from the justice herself, which is helpful when the documentary inevitably asks her to comment on our current president, who she criticized publicly during the 2016 campaign.
Overall, “RBG” will be celebrated by audiences sympathetic to Ginsburg’s ideology, but the film will still be interesting for those who have their own dissenting opinions.
“RBG” is rated PG for thematic elements and language; running time: 98 minutes.