Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Jane C. Ginsberg
Martin D. Ginsburg (archive footage)
Runtime: 98 mins.
Australian release date: 26 July 2018
Previewed at: Chauvel Cinema, Paddington, Sydney, on 22 July 2018.
The current #MeToo climate is a perfect time for the recent swathe of documentaries and dramas about women (cf. Whitney, Jill Bilcock: Dancing The Invisible, Ocean’s 8, Mary Shelley and soon The Wife) and now we can add Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG, an engaging and endearing portrait of Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Now 85 years young, this formidable warrior for gender equality has cut a path through the male-dominated US judicial system to sit in the highest court in the land. It was a long but ultimately successful journey from her initial appointment to the US Court of Appeals in 1980 (by President Jimmy Carter) to being selected as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1993 (by President Bill Clinton), only the second female Justice to be appointed to that august body.
Hailing from a Jewish family resident in Brooklyn, Ruth Bader, as she was then known, was an excellent student who was attracted to the law early in life and went on to study at Cornell University, where she met her future husband. After graduation, her career was not without controversy as she quickly took on some high-profile cases relating to equal rights for the sexes, cases fought in the Supreme Court while she was still a young attorney. She openly advocated for gender equality at a time when women were fighting for their rights to equal pay and equal opportunity within the workforce and strongly supported a woman’s right to abortion. Bader Ginsburg, as she became after her marriage, was never afraid to stand up and be counted and, while on the Supreme Court, was often a lone dissenting voice on the bench as her fellow judges became more conservative over the years. This earned her the nickname in the press of the ‘Notorious RBG’, a play on the name of the rapper known as The Notorious B.I.G, and also gave her a place in popular culture, particularly in the minds of women. Diminutive in stature, Bader Ginsburg brought strength, dignity and a feminine touch to the proceedings in the Court, designing her own uniform to go with the traditional black gown worn by the male judges, comprised of a variety of lace and jewelled collars, or jabots, which she selects depending on the case at hand.
Interviews with her many admirers, including President Clinton and Gloria Steinem, reveal the level of admiration for Bader Ginsburg’s work, and is reinforced by archival footage of her husband and current-day interviews with her children and grand-children. This family footage also reveals intimate details of her personal life, including the fact that she was well-known in the family for her lack of humour but her loving husband Martin ably compensated for this absence. Her love of opera saw her pen some lines for herself in a small role in the National Opera’s opening night performance of The Daughter of the Regiment, which we get to see in RBG.
Bader Ginsburg’s occasional outspokenness has put her on the back foot at times, most recently her comments about the selection of Donald Trump for the Presidency of the USA - she famously declared words to the effect that it was time to move to New Zealand if he was elected. She subsequently apologised for her indiscretion. Having been described as a “feminist rock star” and, “…as tough as nails”, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a force of nature, able to rise above her adversaries and still advocate for her beliefs while coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis. She makes you think of Helen Reddy’s 1970s feminist anthem, ‘I am woman, hear me roar’. Those lyrics are certainly pertinent in the case of the remarkable RBG.