‘RBG’ highlights life, accomplishments of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“RBG” takes the familiar figure of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court and currently the court’s oldest member — and shows us lots of things we didn’t know about her. Given the partisan divide, the documentary probably will be of interest only to people who already admire Justice Ginsburg, but it’s a good story that will inspire many and should appeal to anyone with an open mind.

Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West make a persuasive case that Ginsburg was, essentially, the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s movement. In the 1970s, she argued six cases before the Supreme Court and won five, all of them dealing directly or tangentially with the issue of women’s equality under the law. In this way, she was to women’s rights what Marshall was to Civil Rights, both as a lawyer and as a member of the Supreme Court.

The need for these guarantees under the law were plain to Ginsburg, when after graduating at the top of her class at Columbia Law School, she had trouble getting a job. During a stint in academia, she found herself getting paid less than her male colleagues. Such injustices and others helped form the focus of her life’s work.

The movie details her personal life, including her long and devoted marriage to her husband, Martin, a prominent tax attorney who died in 2010. Martin is a very appealing figure in this documentary, as rambunctious as his wife was quiet. Genial, funny and outgoing, he took enormous pride and delight in his wife’s success, and to an extent, he was responsible for it. When President Bill Clinton was looking for someone to appoint to a vacant seat in 1993, it was Martin, through his connections, that got Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s name before the president.

RBG did the rest, nailing her interview. In recent years, it’s not the usual thing for a president to nominate a 60-year-old for the Supreme Court. Usually, presidents look for someone younger — more likely to last 30 productive years. But as Bill Clinton says in an on camera interview, he knew minutes into their conversation that Ginsburg would be his choice.

In recent years, Ginsburg has become something of a pop culture cult figure, with a kind of adulation that is only part tongue in cheek. Ginsburg has been given a hip-hop-like moniker — “Notorious RBG” being a play on “Notorious B.I.G.” The notion of Ginsburg, who has been quiet and reserved all her life, being compared to a big, blustering rap star, is incongruous and deliberately droll.

Yet underlying the joke is the acknowledgment that Ginsburg has been playing a very long game her whole life. She has been thinking strategically and incrementally, and no one in America — big and loud and flashy or otherwise — could have done more.



Grade: B

Starring Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.

Rated PG for some thematic elements and language. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Bottom line: Documentary that will inspire many

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