In the era of memes and hashtags, many of us have a notion or slight understanding of this introverted Supreme Court Justice. But who is she really? RBG takes on this biographical task with a sense of subtle, reserved gusto, much like that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
And what a tale it is . . .
I first encountered the documentary soon after its release, when awards predictions from the industry cast this film as a contender. Within the past several weeks, such forecasts were confirmed when RBG was nominated for Best Documentary for both the British Academy Film Awards and the Academy Awards in the U.S. Which such nods, I delved into the movie to understand the praise surrounding it.
RBG begins with the standard chronology of a historical figure, intermixing snippets of interviews from people who know her with a cinematic timeline of her life from birth through her milestones. That in and of itself would make for an interesting narrative, as Ginsberg has had a full, storied life.
But as Ginsburg grows and reaches for goals and dreams the rest may take for granted, life happens. And this is where the film sets itself apart, by crystallising the struggles of a woman who never sought the limelight, whose only desires were to be treated fairly and to do the work.
The formidable Ginsburg of legal lore started to emerge with her acceptance into Harvard Law, where she stood apart from the male student body as one of the few women in attendance. That feat compounded when she reached their Law Review in her second year, an accomplishment she obtained by the strength of her merit. Her academic acumen would go on to be challenged throughout her law school career, as she dealt with the additional responsibilities of raising her daughter while her husband underwent treatment for cancer. To quote one of the interviewees, “That is when Ruth learned how to burn the candle at both ends.”
Such grit and determination became the hallmark of Ginsburg’s career, which the filmmakers station within the rise of the Women’s Right Movement in the States. Again, Ginsburg is painted as a figure who sought neither fame nor fortune, only the opportunity to ensure the letter of the law was applied equally to all citizens. The fact she had to do so one case at a time - with each piece of litigation stemming from a history of gender bias - made for long, gruelling labour.
Thankfully, the case wins came, and from those a reputation of a lawyer who represented the Davids against the Goliaths.
The shifting tide of engaging women more equally in American society eventually cracked open doors for them in the legal profession, gateways through which Ginsburg entered. RBG notes this with a degree of surprise, for though well-versed in the law, the film’s protagonist is noted by many of her colleagues for her humility, as being one who never tooted her own horn. So when the time arouse for the nomination of another Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg was not considered a leading contender.
And this is where yet another subtle yet strong quality of the film’s narrative shines: the presentation of Ginsburg’s humanity. It was during the nomination process for the Supreme Court that her husband Martin used every connection he had to garner consideration of his wife for the position. This wasn’t an act of mere nepotism, for, as RBG demonstrates, Martin Ginsburg – a powerful force in the legal community himself – honestly believed his wife was the best there was. And when given the chance to speak about her life’s work and her soul’s passion – to then President Clinton, to members of Congress – Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved him right (as RBG comically points out was the trend in their marriage).
Ginsburg’s poignant, steadfast commitment to the law and equality unfolds in many more ways throughout the film, most notably as RBG chronicles her decisions in an ever-increasing polarising society. Although branded a liberal by her critics, of which she has many, she never comes across as a firebrand or a dissenter. She merely has a moral compass she follows unapologetically, in pursuit of a nobler cause, without regard for the political bias or toxic rhetoric of others.
Her adherence to her integrity, which by the end of RBG, we the audience can conclude has never wavered in the span of her lifetime, cements her as an icon in not only the legal world, but in all of ours.
To my genuine surprise, RBG serves to remind us that values we may have forgotten in a social-media-saturated-world – tenacity, honesty, respect – still endure, even within the frame of a diminutive woman who nodded off during a State of the Union address.
Written by Joshua Rutherford