Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the most well-known jurists of our time. A member of the Supreme Court, Ginsburg is often criticized for her rulings on the right and hailed by her fans on the left. She’s even developed a following among young people, who sometimes refer to her as the Notorious RBG.
The new documentary RBG attempts to tell Ginsburg’s story, revealing how the soft-spoken lawyer has become such a force in the justice system.
RBG begins with conservative voices criticizing the Clinton-appointed justice. The feature then flashes back to tell Ginsburg’s story, recalling her days in law school and her work as an attorney (where she often appeared before the Supreme Court). Utilizing interviews with strong feminist voices and the justice herself, the film shows how she often used her voice to speak up for gender equality.
The feature is overtly flattering to the justice with Gloria Steinem noting that Ginsburg is “the closest thing to a superhero I know.” The justice speaks up for herself as well, talking about the work she did as a leading voice for gender equality at a time when it seemed like an alien concept to so many leaders. “I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days,” she says.
The documentary sheds light on some of the justice’s biggest cases as a lawyer. A great highlight is seeing how Ginsburg’s rise was directly tied into the fight for gender equality and how her voice — once a solitary one — has grown more powerful as others join the fight. It’s eye-opening to see the cases she once argued in front of the court and how those cases changed how our country viewed the concept of equality.
However, the film’s greatest success might be in telling Ginsburg’s personal story. It shows the justice not as a liberal icon but as a diligent person who has known some great highs and lows. From the death of her mother when Ginsburg was 17 to her finding lasting love at an early age (“He was the first boy I ever knew who cared I had a brain,” she says about her late husband.)
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West fit a lot of great interviews into this film but at times, the documentary feels distracted from its main objective. The conservative voices at the beginning of the film are hardly ever heard from again. Those voices seemed to set the stage for the story but it seems like a missed opportunity to bring up criticisms of the justice early on and never return to that subject.
There are some criticisms of the justice at the end of the feature but those feel tacked-on and don’t really feel connected to the earlier critiques. It also seems like a waste of precious screen time to spend time focusing on the fact that Ginsburg has fallen asleep during State of the Union speeches.
That being said, RBG presents a uniquely personal look at the Supreme Court Justice and eloquently shows how her fights in the courtroom led to changes throughout our entire country.
Review by: John Hanlon