"All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks."
Gender equality juggernaut Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the subject of RBG, the new documentary that explores her life and achievements with pious reverence. It assumes, though, the audience also reveres Ginsburg... which is probably fair. It's just about impossible to be a human being and not do so.
Of course, one has to know who Ruth Bader Ginsburg is to revere her. While many know the name, few know the whole story. RBG is here to remedy that situation. The film traces the rise of the Supreme Court Associate Justice's career from humble roots in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn ("I'm a Brooklynite." Ginsburg says) to her current status as a social and pop cultural icon.
Ginsburg has achieved her status by taking those hallowed words in our Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal," to mean what they actually say. She has a well-earned reputation as a fighter, but, as the film shows, the real RBG belies that image with a quiet, gentle manner that's more Ruth Bader Grandma.
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West edit RBG's extensive and riveting archival footage with sequences of Ginsburg's daily life away from the office — working out with adorable little dumbbells, signing autographs, and speaking with her granddaughter, herself a Harvard Law grad, which brings certain things full circle. Where Ginsburg was once one of nine women in a class of 500 men at Harvard, her granddaughter is part of the first graduating class that split the gender divide 50/50.
That's one of the many eye-opening and infuriating facts mentioned in RBG. While Cohen and West obviously adore Ginsburg, the facts will hopefully split the partisan divide when this film finds an audience. Ginsburg is no political blowhard. She came from nothing and was raised in a world where the family money was meant for her brother to attend college, not her. She, nevertheless, went to Cornell where she studied government and met her husband Martin Ginsburg (they were married for 56 years until his death in 2010).
RBG shows the human side of the Supreme Court Justice and portrays her as a woman who saw the odds stacked against her and decided to use law and the truth to effect change. Like that quote from the Declaration of Independence, the veracity of her argument was self-evident. The world just needed Ms. Ginsburg to articulate it properly.
RBG is full of the requisite worship these kinds of documentaries usually entail. There's nothing transcendent about the method. Interviews with family members, colleagues, and celebrities add color. (Ginsburg's daughter reveals her mom would usually sleep all weekend to catch up from working all week.) The most fascinating parts of the film, however, are the archival segments. The audio, for example, from Frontiero v. Richardson in 1973, in which Ginsburg represents the ACLU in front of the Supreme Court (a "captive audience" she gleefully recalls) is larger than life. She calmly and assuredly assassinates centuries of patriarchal military nonsense with perfectly constructed sentences. You need to hear it.
That hugely important court case, which Ginsburg won, follows the revelation that no firm in New York City would employ her after graduating law school in 1959. The barriers in Ginsburg's way were so immense, it justifies all the modern hero worship and then some. As one interviewee says, "as popular as she is, people have no idea." RBG is far-reaching despite its saintly worship. And, anyways, if ever there was someone deserving of it, it's Ms. Ginsburg.