2018-05-17 / Around Town

‘RBG’ Offers Saucy Portrait, Puts Us on Notice

By Loren King

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the feisty subject of “RBG.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the feisty subject of “RBG.” Although this is a documentary about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, don’t expect somber legal discussions or doses of jurisprudence. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen deliver a saucy portrait of the 84-year-old Ginsburg’s life and the trailblazing work that has earned her rock star status.

The film opens with images of monuments to justice in Washington, D.C. juxtaposed with the vitriol and often misogynist insults of right wing talk radio. The film then pointedly leaves the divisive gutter and focuses on Ginsburg, a diminutive, soft-spoken, sharp as a tack, hardworking scholar with a winking smile who’s unwavering in her knowledge of and belief in the law.

The film centers mostly on Ginsburg’s vigorous dissenting opinions, which she reads aloud, and her trailblazing role in defining gender-discrimination law. This has endeared her to a generation of millennial feminists who used social media memes to create the contemporary image of Ginsburg as a fierce, fearless warrior and christened her with the moniker “Notorious RBG.”

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. West and Cohen interview many of these young feminists, including Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, whose 2015 book “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” inspired the documentary’s jaunty style. Ginsburg may be demure and gracious, but her life’s work has been spent in the trenches fighting for equal rights for nearly five decades.

The film breezily tracks her work with the ACLU during the 1970s while she was a Rutgers University professor and successfully challenged several discriminatory laws, including her first argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), on behalf of Air Force lieutenant Sharron Frontiero, who was denied military benefits given automatically to men. Ginsburg’s slow but steady strategy was to chip away at the impenetrable wall of discriminatory gender based laws.

The film also focuses on more recent controversial decisions, such as Hobby Lobby and the gutting of the voting rights act by 5-4 splits for which Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinions. Oddly, the film doesn’t include the infamous Citizens United ruling that Ginsburg has said should be overturned.

There is rich personal history, too. Born June Ruth Bader to Jewish immigrants in Flatbush, Brooklyn in 1933, Ginsburg’s mother was an early influence who instructed her daughter to “be a lady and be independent.”

Ginsburg graduated from Cornell and was one of just nine women in her Harvard Law School class of 500, with a dean that asked each woman to justify taking a spot that could have gone to a man. Within two years, she made the exclusive ranks of the Harvard Law Review, all while raising two children, caring for her husband, Martin Ginsburg, during his successful first battle with cancer, and helping him with his own rigorous law studies. After graduation, no New York law firm would hire her or any other woman.

Some of the best material portrays the Ginsburgs as an odd but perfectly matched couple. They met as undergraduates at Cornell, and they were equal partners for the next 63 years before Martin, a New York tax lawyer, died in 2010. Martin Ginsburg fully supported and championed his wife’s career from the start. When Byron White retired from the Supreme Court, it was Martin who campaigned to have President Clinton consider his wife, who was confirmed in 1993, making her just the second woman on the high court. Clinton’s recounting of his meeting with Ruth Ginsburg is among the film’s many highlights.

Other revealing anecdotes come from Ginsburg’s children and granddaughter; NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg; law professor Arthur Miller; and Gloria Steinem. We see Ginsburg’s grit as the cancer survivor rigorously works out, and her playful side as an opera enthusiast, which formed the basis of her strange bedfellows ‘friendship with the late justice Antonin Scalia.

The light tone of these moments doesn’t dilute the seriousness of “RBG.” Without overstating the obvious, the film makes clear that many of the rights Ginsburg fought for and continues to champion are currently under siege. The sight of the octogenarian justice sweating through push-ups and working at her desk until the wee hours will hearten her supporters and serve as notice to her detractors.

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