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RBG

Posted November 8, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

I’m not typically much for documentaries, but we’ve had so many noteworthy ones this year that I’ve reluctantly had to hone my skills in reviewing them. It certainly helps that I finally saw a bad documentary (The King) against which I could measure the good ones (Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). Finally, the trend got to be so pronounced that I knew I’d have to circle back and give a fair shake to one of the year’s most acclaimed documentaries, just when the film in question conveniently aired on CNN. It’s been sitting in my DVR until I could get around to it, and I knew today that I couldn’t put it off any longer.

This morning, as of this typing, the news came out that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, fell and broke three of her ribs. This review is most humbly and respectfully dedicated to Justice Ginsburg, with my best wishes for her continued health and happiness.

RBG is a documentary about the life and times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, cleverly using her confirmation hearing testimony as a framing device. In this way, we get to hear Ginsburg briefly describing her background in her own words before the Senate Judiciary Committee before zooming in to take a closer look through interviews and footage. Here we learn about Ginsburg’s education, her family life, her marriage, etc. More importantly, this is where we learn about Ginsburg’s impressive track record of arguing cases before the Supreme Court, making crucial steps in social equality and civil liberties with every win.

Of course, the framing device has a shelf life, as Ginsburg is confirmed to the Supreme Court and the story keeps going. Yet the filmmakers keep everything steady by staying focused on her track record with regard to sexual equality (most notably the United States v. Virginia case of 1996). But then came the George W. Bush years, when the Supreme Court swerved sharply to the right, and this is where the movie really takes off.

Up until this point, everybody had known Ginsburg as a woman of deep intelligence who fiercely believed in universal equality under the law, but was small and soft-spoken in person. That changed in a major way when the Notorious RBG came to pop culture prominence as a dissenting voice against the male conservative voice that was dominant in the Supreme Court during the Dubya years. A new, young, creative, wired, politically savvy generation had discovered Ginsburg as a voice speaking truth to power. Millennials were coming of age in a post-Recession world, quickly discovering that the world had been built without any room for them in it, and Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions seemed to perfectly capture how they felt.

And this is where the movie’s themes come into sharper focus.

In recent years, we’ve seen no shortage of movies taking place in the mid-20th century, drawing parallels to the social inequalities of the modern day. (Off the top of my head, SelmaThe HelpHidden Figures, and BlacKkKlansman come immediately to mind. To say nothing of another movie about Ginsburg coming out later this year.) But this movie goes a step beyond any of those pictures by continuing into the present day. While most films would be content to simply draw the parallel, this one directly and explicitly spends half its running time to show the past as prologue.

The filmmakers are very clear in presenting Ginsburg’s cases and arguments as stepping stones. Yes, women had it hard back then; yes, they still have a long ways to go; and yes, it’s upsetting that times haven’t changed all that much. But because of Ginsburg and those like her, women have a much stronger foundation to build upon. And a hugely significant part of that is having a female pioneering role model like Ginsburg to look up to — something Ginsburg and her peers never had to this degree. (Though she does briefly mention Thurgood Marshall as an inspiration, using many of his ideas for how to successfully argue about social equality in a court of law.)

The movie and its subject repeatedly show how true lasting change is made incrementally. We can plainly see for ourselves how Ginsburg paved the way for sexual equality, one case at a time. Thus the audience is implicitly challenged to pick up where Ginsburg and her forebears left off. After all, alas, there is only one RBG and she can’t be with us forever. But there are millions of us who may yet follow her example and continue her work in building a more perfect union.

With all of that said, the filmmakers are smart enough not to keep the focus tightly on women. Early on, for example, the movie gives time to the Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld case. Thus the movie shows (as the case did) that sexual discrimination can be just as harmful to men as it is to women. This is a crucial point too often overlooked in feminist arguments, and I can’t overstate how smart it was for the movie (and for Ginsburg) to address this. It provides men with yet another, admittedly more self-centered reason to care about sexual equality and motivate them to action.

To be clear, it’s not all politics. The filmmakers were smart enough to paint a vivid picture of Ginsburg as a person, through her love of opera, interactions with her granddaughter, her reactions of Kate McKinnon’s recurring impressions on Saturday Night Live, and so on. But easily the most important and compelling subject with regards to Ginsburg’s personal life is her husband.

The filmmakers take great pains in showing how Martin Ginsburg was behind his wife at every step, going out of his way to push her higher and higher because everybody knew she was perfectly qualified for anything yet too quiet and humble for self-promotion. As strong and brilliant as Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, the movie makes it perfectly clear that if she didn’t have a husband so completely in love with her intelligence, who didn’t remotely mind playing second fiddle to his wife, we might never have had Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

The dynamic between them is far more intricate and balanced than I can make it sound without 97 minutes of screen time, but suffice to say that the message of the movie is clear: In the fight for sexual equality, women can only do so much. By its very nature, equality between the sexes must require participation from both sexes. Men must be better feminist allies, speaking and acting where necessary, for (as previously stated) sexual inequality can be just as harmful for men as anyone else. We’re all in this together.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, a big one for me is Sandra Day O’Connor. In a movie about the second female Supreme Court justice in history, the first one barely gets a mention. I would’ve been very interested to hear something — anything — about how O’Connor’s confirmation to the Supreme Court affected Ginsburg after she had already spent years arguing before the Supreme Court in favor of women’s rights.

Additionally, the movie goes into detail about how Ginsburg struggled with institutional sexism in her educational career and her early days as a professional lawyer, to say nothing of her challenges juggling school and parenting while also nursing a cancer-stricken husband. And then of course the movie portrays her as a pioneer who blazed a trail for other women to follow. But this angle doesn’t quite stick the landing for me. Yes, things are just as hard now for any young adult just starting out, though of course things are made slightly easier because of headway into sexual equality.

Even so, the fact remains that on top of lingering sexism, recent grads and single parents today are under so much more economic stress today. I don’t know how hard it was back in the ’50s for a newlywed twenty-something couple to deal with law school, student debt, medical bills, raising a newborn child, and the cost of living in New York City, but I’m sure doing all of that at the same time couldn’t have been nearly as hard as it is now.

Oh, and Kate McKinnon doesn’t get an interview. What’s up with that?

Overall, I have no problem giving RBG a strong recommendation. It’s a wonderful tribute to the women of today and a crucial figure in their due recognition as equal citizens under the law. Plus, it’s a colorful and delightful portrait of a woman who — by the very nature of her job — doesn’t typically get a lot of time in the spotlight (compared to those in the other two branches, at any rate).

Definitely check this one out if you haven’t already.