RBG A Surprise Cult Hit

RBG (2018)
Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Magnolia Pictures, 97 minutes, PG

When I saw RBG a few weeks ago, my first thought was that liberals should pray that 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsberg remains in rosy health. Then Justice Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, which begs the question of whether the composition of the Supreme Court can be changed in this generation. Kennedy's bombshell takes some of the feel-good luster off this fine documentary, but you should see it nonetheless. Let me add, you should do so even if you are a conservative, because Justice Ginsberg is a remarkable person, no matter your politics.

The film is full of revelations, so let me mention just a few. Today, Ruth Bader Ginsberg looks like one of those people who was born old—and I mean that in a good way. She exudes the kind of wisdom that comes with experience, and her bearing is that of a sophisticated elder. So the film's first reveal is a look at her youth. We would expect a future Supreme Court judge to have been smart, but Ginsberg was extraordinary. Her parents were Jewish immigrants and, if she seems a bit too buttoned-down at times, consider that her sister's death was a pall hovering over her family, and that Ruth's mother died the day before she graduated from high school. Nonetheless, her path took her from Brooklyn to Cornell and Columbia Law School. She was also vivacious and knockout attractive, though as serious as a tomb when it came to her studies. She married almost immediately upon graduating from Cornell, and followed her husband Martin to Oklahoma, where he was an ROTC officer, and she worked for the Social Security Administration. RBG had a one-year-old daughter when she started law school—first at Harvard and then Columbia.

The second revelation is her law career before she entered the SCOTUS. Perhaps you assume that a Supreme Court justice must have done some very impressive things, but it staggers when the details of Ginsberg's accomplishments are highlighted. If you think Congress is responsible for the gains of women in American society, think again. Laws are often not worth the paper upon which they are printed until they are battled in the courts; Ruth Bader Ginsberg's legal acumen helped write those laws and assured that intent became content. In her work with the ACLU, Ginsberg took on over 300 discrimination cases. She also made six trips to the SCOTUS and won five of them. Her tactic was unique; her Supreme Court cases usually hinged on discrimination situations that applied to men as well as women—which took the wind from the sails of would-be chauvinists. Although her tone was generally moderate, Ginsberg was a quiet spear-bearer for feminism.

The biggest reveal of all, though, is the film's portrait of Ginsberg's late husband Marty (1932–2010). He was the embodiment of the Yiddish word mensch. He was happy to advance his wife's legal career over his own, and he was not afraid to see her as more ambitious and brilliant than he. Marty Ginsberg was a guileless male feminist at a time (1950s/60s) in which such ideas bordered on the unthinkable. He also provided balancing levity to his wife's steely seriousness. RBG has a sense of humor, but it's not her strong suit; Marty was the Groucho Mark to her Margaret Rutherford. And there was nobody on the planet that was a bigger cheerleader of Ruth's accomplishments. He teased, but he reminded all of his wife's capacious intellect.

We also gain insight into some of RBG's other qualities: her love of classical music and her considerable skill as a pianist, her amazing workout routines, and her improbable but sincere friendship with Anton Scalia. If you find it hard to imagine that Ginsberg could enjoy the company of a political arch rival, it is a testament to her character that she compartmentalizes so expertly. Would that more Americans—including our feckless and reckless commander in chief—could respect those with whom they disagree. Besides, is it any less imaginable than the fact that RBG is a cult icon among the young? The last of these is another revelation. Ruth Bader Ginsberg as pop culture icon? You bet your gavel!

I can't say that directors West and Cohen redefine the documentary style in RBG, but they do present us with a lovable, admirable figure. That such figures are rare these days is both poignant and sad.

Rob Weir


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