Film Review: RBG

In light of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing on Sept. 18, 2020 at the age of 87, I wanted to learn more about her.

I know some broad strokes, primarily that she was the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States after Sandra Day O’Connor by President Bill Clinton in 1993, that she was wrote the opinion for a pivotal gender equality and integration case regarding a Virginia military school in United States v. Virginia in 1996, that despite their differing viewpoints, RBG and fellow, late justice Antonin Scalia, were good friends, and that in later life, she became something of a pop culture icon among Democrats and liberals, affectionately referring to her as “The Notorious R.B.G.,” a play on the rapper, “Notorious B.I.G.” The moniker makes all the more sense since they’re both Brooklyn-born.

But the specifics of her life, particularly before she became an associate justice on the Supreme Court, I am not as familiar with. I’m hoping this 2018 documentary, freely available on Hulu, entitled, RBG, will help help in that endeavor. While the tagline is, “Hero. Icon. Dissenter,” I’m also hoping the documentary helps me get beyond the recent pop culture icon status and to the pioneering woman behind the robes.

Like with my film reviews, I’ll do the usual behind-the-scenes production notes, and then dive into my running commentary on the documentary.

The film, produced by CNN Films and Participant Media and distributed by Magnolia Pictures, was directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. West and Cohen are video journalists and filmmakers from the Columbia Journalism School. It seems Cohen produced some Dateline NBC episodes between 2003 and 2011, and I’m a Dateline fiend, so that’s neat. But I’m not familiar with their other documentaries. At the Academy Awards, the film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature, but lost to Free Solo.

To make the film, West and Cohen followed RBG around in 2016 to various meetings and speeches, including in Chicago and Washington, D.C. for 20 hours and conducted a face-to-face interview in 2017, according to IMDb.

The synopsis on Hulu reads, “An intimate portrait of an unlikely rock star: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With unprecedented access, the filmmakers explore how her early legal battles changed the world for women.”

The film is about 98 minutes, so rather par for the course for a good-sized documentary, and befitting someone with the accolades of RBG. Let’s do it.

Okay, on the music front, when you overlay shots of D.C. with the operatic noises of Philip Gibson and London Symphony Orchestra doing Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville – Overture, I’m all in, is all I’m saying (and it also makes sense given RBG’s affinity for opera). Then that beautiful music switches to the barbwire tones of right-wing media talking heads, like Mark Levin, and President Trump, calling her a monster and “an absolute disgrace to the Supreme Court.”

“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren, is that they take their feet off our necks,” RBG, quoting famed American abolitionist and “mother of the women’s suffrage movement,” Sarah Grimké in the mid-1800s.

Then we get the valorized version of RBG working out, lifting weighs and doing a plank longer than I can at then-84 years old. We then go to her Senate confirmation hearing in 1993 for the Supreme Court, and that’s a fun throwback also because presiding over it is the then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and current Democratic contender for president of the United States, Joe Biden.

RBG talks about her time attending Cornell University in New York in the 1950s, where the main modus operandi of parents sending their daughters there was for them to pick up men. So, a lot of the women, brilliant as they were, suppressed their brilliance to essentially assuage the egos of men insecure in their own intellect. Fortunately for RBG, her husband, Martin, or Marty, as she calls him, wasn’t like that, and liked her for her brain, she says.

The cutest thing is that her granddaughter, Clara Spera, calls RBG, “Bubbie,” which is a Yiddish word for grandmother. If you didn’t know, RBG is Jewish, and was the first Jewish female justice of the Supreme Court, and the first Jewish justice since 1969. Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, current justices, are also Jewish.

But it’s these moments with RBG and Clara that are the kind of behind-the-robes scenes I’m talking about, with Clara asking her if she wants Splenda or not. Those little moments, not to mention the big moment of Clara herself graduating from Harvard Law School with a 50-50 split class (50 percent men, 50 percent female, the first in the 200-year history of the school at that time). The Supreme Court is so shrouded in norms and procedures, and not on television the way the legislative and executive branches are, that there’s more intrigue behind who these justices are in my view. That is, who they are as real people, and perhaps how that informs their jurisprudence.

When RBG was at Harvard Law School in 1957 — about 50 years prior — she was one of nine women in a class of 500, so that means the other 494 were men, and she talks about how she felt “on display to perform well” because you were representing all women. Of course, men don’t have to worry about that, they’re only representing themselves individually, not “men” broadly.

At that time while she’s excelling, albeit navigating the sexist waters of Harvard, RBG is also taking care of Marty (who was stricken with cancer) and their daughter, both helping Marty with his own law work and raising her. That’s an extraordinary lift to even consider. Despite graduating first in her class at Columbia Law School (she transferred) and being the first woman to be on both major law reviews, Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review, no law firms in New York wanted to hire a woman.

“Being a woman was impediment,” RBG said.

Some of the laws on the books in 1970, which is not that long ago people, included things like:

  • Employers in most states can legally fire a woman for being pregnant.
  • Banks can require a woman applying for credit to have her husband co-sign.
  • In 12 states, husbands cannot be prosecuted for raping their wives (the grotesque rationale being that a marriage stipulated forever consent).

Women were still second-class citizens because the entire law apparatus was written by men for men. But RBG wasn’t a Gloria Steinem feminist in the terms of being out there protesting and advocating (another lawyer said she’s not a “firebrand”). She was using her skills at law to effect change.

One of the greatest organizations in American history, naturally, steps into the fold, aka, the American Civil Liberties Union, which had created, under co-founder RBG, the Women’s Rights Project, modeled after the civil rights movement for blacks in the 1960 by taking on gender discrimination cases. RBG would go before the Supreme Court throughout the 1970s to argue such cases.

The grab me again by playing Janis Joplin during the women’s movement scenes in the 1970s.

It’s a joy to hear those 1970s oral arguments from the Supreme Court, with RBG discussing gender based discrimination in front of nine men for 1973’s Frontiero v. Richardson (Sharron Frontiero served in the United States Air Force and was denied housing and medical benefits that men received). She’s eloquent, fierce in a subtle way, and clear. And she won the case. Two years later, she took Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, which was a stroke of genius, because it showed that gender based discrimination in the law cut both ways (in this case, Stephen Wiesenfeld’s wife died after having a baby, and he couldn’t collect the widowers special benefits from Social Security, but if he had been a woman, he could have). RBG won again. Gender based discrimination hurts everyone, she noted.

“The gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage,” RBG, before the Court.

Folks, to reiterate again: This is not that long ago. The plaintiffs, like Frontiero and Wiesenfeld, are still alive, and pretty young! And United States v. Virginia, where a woman out of high school wanted to join the Virginia Military Institute, sued the Institute under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment since it was all-male, was only 24 years ago! My lifetime. And you may say, well, that’s the military and the military moves even slower than other areas of law, and blah blah. But the arguments underwriting it were that, if women were allowed to attend VMI, men would be distracted by women. It’s sexist nonsense.

We go back to the confirmation hearing in 1993, where RBG was confirmed by the United States Senate in a 96-3 vote. That’s hard to imagine today. It’s not like the 1990s were a panacea free from partisanship, but it’s hard to imagine a 96-3 vote today. For comparison, Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed 68-31 in August 2009, and Elena Kagan 63-37 on Aug. 5, 2010. That was the best vote for a justice confirmation since Anthony Kennedy in 1987 under Ronald Reagan, 97-0. Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 also under Reagan was 99-0, for the record.

“The Notorious R.B.G.”

I’m glad they spend time on the RBG and Scalia “odd couple” friendship. It’s quaint. People scoff at it. How can you be friends with someone on the opposing side? But that’s how it ought to be, as a general rule of thumb. You can be principled, righteous and passionate, but people can disagree about those principles and still be cordial instead of conjuring the other side as evil.

That also gets into the early 2000s, where we get the third part of the tagline, the “dissenter,” where because of the changing ideological landscape of the Court, RBG moved further to the liberal side, and thus, became more of a dissenting voice with her opinions on cases. The most famous of which is perhaps 2007’s dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., where Lilly Ledbetter sued the company for pay discrimination based on her pay being 40 percent less than her male counterparts despite doing the same exact job. The majority opinion was a process problem, in essence, where the justices argued Ledbetter was discriminated against, but filed her complaint too late. The reason this dissent might be the more famous one is because RBG read the dissent from the bench, which is rare form for a justice. A fair pay federal law would be enacted in 2009, which, honestly, is how it ought to work. Legislators ought to legislate — another quaint idea.

The documentary then gets into the “Notorious R.B.G” moniker, and I think it’s cute. They play her up as this understated, but fierce woman for decades, just doing her legal thing, and then late in life, in her 80s, she gets the fun of becoming something of an empowerment meme. She deserved that after a lifetime of pioneering legal work and jurisprudence, largely unseen by the wider public. Seeing her laugh at her the impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live is quite something.

She had her first bouts of cancer in 1999 and 2009, respectively, which I didn’t know about. What a life she made out of adversity going back to those early days at Harvard Law School and Marty’s own cancer issues to battling through various medical issues of her own later in life.

I’m surprised RBG actually was asked toward the end of the film at a speaking engagement by one of the hosts, if she regrets not retiring under President Obama, so he could appoint her successor. She said she promised she would do the job at full steam until she no longer could. She most certainly did.

To be sure, the documentary isn’t aiming to be a critical appraisal of RBG and her life, but rather a sobering celebration of her jurisprudence from the 1950s to 2018, and what that meant for women more broadly (and men, as RBG showed, gender based discrimination cut both ways). I got the woman behind the robes I wanted. What that is is a woman who is a sober, serious thinker who shaped the law in important ways, and is one of the most important modern jurists for that reason.

On a final note, there are two takeaways I have about this documentary and the life of RBG:

  • What would society look like, if not for those few among who stir the pot and ask, “Why?” Why is the law this way? Why is society arranged this way? Why can’t I do this? And often, the biggest push back such dissenters receive is from the public at large, not aware of how the status quo is crushing them. We are indebted to these dissenters, and to people like RBG, who was one such dissenter.
  • For those not initiated in the world of law, and particularly the Supreme Court, beyond the Notorious R.B.G. moniker, RBG represents something reflective of that world to me: it’s sober and dull, in a good way. It’s about process as much as it is about the law itself and outcomes. Law is slow. Law is hard-work. Law is laborious. But law, when wielded in a fair and equal way, is powerful. RBG seemed to understand that.

Whatever one thinks of RBG’s viewpoints, it’s indisputable what her legacy will be: A fierce fighter of equal treatment under the law. And for that, we ought to be thankful she came along when she did.

If you haven’t seen this documentary yet, and like me, were in search of understanding RBG, particularly beyond the moniker, this is a good place to start. If you’re skeptical of watching something to do with the law (that’ll be boring! you might think), I assure you, it is not boring. It’s imperative.

If you have seen the documentary, what did you think about it? If you were already familiar with RBG, what do you think of her and her legacy?

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