One’s enjoyment of the new documentary “RBG” will probably be gauged by how well you know the titular subject. If you are like my wife, a professed devotee of the pioneering social justice warrior turned Supreme Court goddess, you might find this presentation a bit on the “been there, knew that” side of things. If you are like me, who actively encouraged his wife’s fangirl-ness for the Notorious RBG by book after book about her but never actually bothered reading any of them, you will likely find this woman’s story to be incredibly inspirational as you sit there and think to yourself that you’re kind of an asshole for not knowing more about this real life Wonder Woman sooner.
Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen follow the now-standard modern biographic documentary format: start with a short introductory look in to the current life of your subject, then bounce around between the beginning of their life and the most relevant important moments that defined the subject’s life, working their way back and forth until we’re back to the modern day, interspersing talking heads moments with old friends and family members until we have a more complete image of the person in question. It’s a tried to true format, which works quite well for the brilliant Mrs. Ginsburg. We have her early life, growing up in Brooklyn, her courtship with the man who would become her husband, her time at Harvard and Columbia Law Schools (which she attended while being a new mother), her time as research associate, then associate director, of the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure, her time as a professor at Rutgers and Columbia, and her appointment as a a Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by President Carter in 1980, before her nomination by President Clinton in 1993 to become the second woman to sit on the bench at the Supreme Court. We get to meet her childhood friends, and her children and granddaughter, and we get to hear from some of her former clients, her colleagues in the Women’s Rights movement, and reporters who covered her life. We get to hear President Clinton’s reasons for deciding on Ginsburg to replace the retiring Supreme Court Justice Byron White. We get to hear from the young women who have been inspired by Mrs. Ginsburg and catapulted her in to the judicial equivalent of a rock star. And, most importantly, we get to hear from Mrs. Ginsburg herself, not only on camera in the present day, but also from authentic audio recordings from some of her arguments both as counsel in front of the Supreme Court and as a Supreme Court Justice.
And this is where RBG really shines. It’s one thing for someone to tell you about their recollection about what happened during a specific case that may have led to a significant change in the rule of law for our nation. It’s quite another thing to hear that person make their argument, to hear exactly their tone and inflection, the power and the conviction of how those words were presented. From Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), her first oral argument before the Supreme Court, where Ginsburg and her co-counsel prevailed in getting the Court to overturn a discriminatory federal law and won housing benefits for her client, a married woman in the U.S. Air Force, equivalent to what a married male airman would receive, to Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), where Ginsburg showed that men too suffer the consequences of laws that discriminate on the basis of sex, and United States v. Virginia (1996), her first women’s rights case as a Supreme Court Justice, where she wrote the landmark majority opinion when the Court struck down the male-only admissions policy of the Virginia Military Institute and concluded that government policies which discriminate on the basis of gender should be presumed unconstitutional, Ginsburg championed the kind of real equal rights that we as a nation sadly still haven’t quite achieved.
(In an interesting footnote, we see how her power affected true change, when she was invited to speak at the Virginia Military Institute in 2007, shortly after the 20th anniversary of the decision which profoundly changed that institute, where those who once may have cursed her name received her warmly. We also get to hear from several of the women who were the first female cadets at VMA in 1997, who are amongst those cheering Ginsburg on from the auditorium, on how that decision made their lives for the better.)
And the, of course, there is some immediacy to her story, as an 85 year old liberal on a Supreme Court which could tilt even more towards a conservative ideology should she retire or pass in the next couple years. It might be cute to see her working out on a daily basis, but we need her to be in as peak condition as possible, mentally and physically, to keep the Court as balanced as it can be at this time.
If you want to see an uplifting story about a young woman overcoming her class struggles to become one of the most important and respected women of the last hundred years, by all means see RBG. If you want to see how much women have struggled over the past hundred years to have every right men have taken for granted over their lives, by all means see RBG. If you want to understand all the hype behind this little woman who has made a positive impact on all our lives, by all means see RBG. And if you want to continue to live your life with your head buried in the sand (or up your ass, as the case may be) and hope that things will go back to the way they were before all these uppity women started demanding equal rights and equal pay and equal opportunity, you really owe it to yourself to see RBG and get yourself on the right side of history before history leaves you far behind.
RBG opens this Friday, May 4th, at the Shirlington Cinemas in Arlington VA, the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar Cinemas, the Arbor Cinemas at Great Hills, the Austin Film Society Cinema and the Violet Crown Cinemas in Austin, the Lincoln Square Cinema Bistro in Bellevue WA, the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley CA, the Bethesda Row Cinemas in Bethesda MD, the Boston Common 19 in Boston, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline MA, the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn Cinemas and the BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn, the Kendall Square Cinemas in Cambridge MA, the Century Centre Cinemas and the River East 21 in Chicago, the CineArts Cinemas in Evanston IL, the Angelika Film Center Mosaic Cinemas in Fairfax VA, the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis, the Angelika Film Center, the Cinemas 1 2 3 and the Landmark at 57 West in New York City, the Palo Alto Square Twin in Palo Alto CA, the Alamo Drafthouse Mission Theatre, the Embarcadero Center Cinemas and the Kabuki 8 in San Francisco, the Santana Row Cinemas in San Jose, the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael CA, the Camelview at Fashion Square Cinemas in Scottsdale AZ, the Meridian 16 and the SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre in Seattle, the E Street Cinemas and the Georgetown 12 in Washington DC, and the Landmark 12 in West Los Angeles.Rating: A