RBG Reigns Supreme in New Documentary
RBG Documentary directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West – A Review
When was the last time you left a movie with a fire in your belly and the desire to take on the world’s injustices? If it’s been too long to remember – then you need to see RBG, a captivating documentary exploring the life and impact of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time getting to know RBG – Ruth Bader – through my artwork, therefore I knew I needed an objective critic to play hooky with me for a Friday matinee showing – lucky for me, my mom was in town.
For some context, it’s funny to consider where my mom and I currently live on the conservative to liberal spectrum. Years ago, I’d say we sat at different ends, but through our own life experiences and witnessing the current events of our country, we’ve both gravitated to just left of center. However, my mom is not one to jump on the pop culture bandwagon. I knew she would give me her honest opinion about the filmmaker’s approach to RBG’s story – as she grew up in the time period when gender inequality was commonplace.
In the promotion of the RGB documentary – from Participant Media, Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films – filmmakers have encouraged guests to “rock your RBG-inspired outfits” and use #RBGMovie hashtag. Cute idea, but I was hopeful that the documentary would strike a balance and limit the use of some of the memes and superhero themes in order to legitimately position RBG’s reputation and impact throughout history.
Betsy West, the first of the RGB documentary’s two filmmakers, has over three decades experience in news and documentaries. As a producer and executive at ABC News, she received 21 Emmy Awards for her work on “Nightline” and “PrimeTimeLive”. West was executive producer of MAKERS documentary, the feature documentary The Lavender Scare, and the short doc 4%: Film’s Gender Problem. You can see West’s gravitation to female-inspired narratives.
Julie Cohen is a producer and director and the founder of BetterThanFiction Productions, Inc., a Brooklyn-based production company. Julie has directed and produced eight other documentary features, including: The Sturgeon Queens, which won 10 Audience Choice Awards, American Veteran, and I Live to Sing. Before starting her own production company, Julie was a staff producer at Dateline NBC where she was nominated for four national Emmy Awards.
As West and Cohen embarked on the RGB documentary, they were met with apprehension when they initially approached RBG. “Her response was ‘not yet,’” West said. “We took that as actually an encouraging sign that maybe she would be interested.” Their persistence and patience paid off when Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed to sit for an interview in the summer of 2017.
As the film began, I was quickly trying to assimilate to the filmmakers’ style. From historic videos and sound recordings to current-day interviews with friends, family and colleagues, the filmmakers weave together a fascinating fabric of formative relationships and experiences that have shaped Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and legacy. Now having reflected on the film, there are three very relatable themes that stood out – they are themes that have solidified RBG’s reputation as the “notorious RBG”.
Theme 1: Equality is the basis for success in life.
Equality and mutual respect are the foundation of RBG’s confidence and success. The filmmakers worked tirelessly to build a roster of interviews of those who have known Ruth before and throughout her law career. Born Joan Ruth Bader in Brooklyn, NY on March 15, 1933, the second daughter to Russian Jewish immigrants.
The family called her “Kiki”, a nickname Marilyn, her older sister, had given her for being a “kicky baby”. Sadly, Marilyn died of meningitis at the age of six, when Ruth was just fourteen months old. When “Kiki” started school, her mother, Celia, discovered that her daughter’s class had several other girls named Joan, so her mother suggested that the teacher call her “Ruth”.
Celia had a strong influence on Ruth’s education and impressed upon her daughter the importance of achievement and independence. Throughout Ruth’s upbringing, Celia struggled with cancer, and tragically passed away the day before Ruth’s high school graduation.
In the film, her childhood friends recall how serious Ruth was. She has always been very straight and to the point and introspective, offering very little, if any, small talk. It is these qualities that were emphasized when considering the juxtaposition of the personality of her future husband, Martin D. Ginsburg – or Marty. Marty was witty and self-deprecating. He longed to make Ruth laugh and they made for a powerhouse couple after meeting at Cornell University at age seventeen. Ruth Bader and Ginsburg were married a month after graduation from Cornell. Ruth commented that her father no longer had to worry “because I now had a man to support me.”
After moving with Marty to Fort Sill, OK, she worked for the Social Security Administration office in Oklahoma, where she was demoted after becoming pregnant with her first child. She gave birth to a daughter in 1955.
Margolick, David (June 25, 1993). “Trial by Adversity Shapes Jurist’s Outlook”. The New York Times. Retrieved February 21, 2016.
Equality as a basis for marriage.
As I watched Ruth and Marty’s relationship and life together unfold on the screen, a key lesson struck me. For a relationship is to succeed among two people who are both driven professionally, each person must be equally confident in their own abilities. Marty wasn’t intimidated by Ruth’s intelligence and work ethic. They were truly equals in their marriage. Being confident and secure with one’s own self overcomes ego, resentment, or jealousy of the other partner.
It is ironic that equality was the basis of Ruth and Marty’s strong relationship – the very thing that Ruth has been fighting for – for others – throughout her career.
Overcoming inequality and graduating top of her class.
Following the birth of their first daughter, RBG enrolled in Harvard Law School where she was one of only nine women in a class of about five hundred men. In the film, Ruth recalls being asked by the Dean of Harvard Law, “How do you justify taking a spot from qualified men?”
In an interview discussion between RBG and her friend and feminist activist, Gloria Steinem, 84, (also present in the film) Ruth recalls her embarrassing answer, fearful of seeming too assertive. “I gave him the answer he expected: My husband is a second-year law student, and it’s important for a woman to understand her husband’s work.” She didn’t believe what she was saying, of course, but Steinem couldn’t help but chime in and poke fun at her friend for “Aunt Tom-ing.”
Later the dean told Ginsburg he had asked the question because “there were still doubting Thomases on the faculty and he wanted the women to arm him with stories.”
When Marty took a job in New York City, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School where, in 1959, she earned her Bachelor of Law and tied for first in her class. However, no one wanted to hire a woman lawyer, valedictorian or not. Firms looking for new prospects advertised “men only”. As a Jew, a woman, and a mother – she had three strikes against her in the eyes of future employers. Ruth came to empathize with others facing obstacles by recalling her own during this time her life.
It was during this time period that gender-based equality emerged as the “women’s movement”. The way Thurgood Marshall led the Civil Rights movement was a successful model for feminist activists. Ruth didn’t consider herself a marcher, but instead she used the law to fight inequality. “I had great good fortune in my life to be alive and have the skills of a lawyer when the women’s movement was revived in the United States,” stated RBG in a 2015 interview.
Ruth took a rather shrewd approach to fighting for gender inequality by demonstrating how outdated gender roles hurt a man just as much as a woman. The filmmaker’s interviewed Stephen Wiesenfeld, a widower and plaintiff from Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975). Wiesenfeld’s wife died in childbirth and her salary was the principle source of the couple’s income. Wiesenfeld applied for social security benefits for himself and his son, and was told that his son could receive them but that he could not. At the time, the Social Security Act provided benefits based on the earnings of a deceased husband and father that were available to both the children and the widow. The benefits of a deceased wife and mother, however, were only available to the children.
Wiesenfeld contested that the Social Security Act discriminated on the basis of sex and RBG took on his case. She made the argument that Section 402(g) of the Social Security Act discriminated against Stephen Wiesenfeld by not providing him with the same survivors’ benefits as it would to a widow. The Court decided unanimously in favor or Wiesenfeld. The 8-0 majority opinion held that the gender-based distinction violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Ginsburg went on to argue a total of six pivotal gender-bias cases before an all-male U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s, winning five out of the six.
A holistic view to social justice.
Had it been a less experienced litigator, he or she might have taken a more surface-level approach to addressing gender inequality. Identify where a female was being treated unfairly – now litigate for corrective action. But Ruth looked at the issue holistically – inequality impacts everyone. In this case, a man wasn’t afforded financial benefits as an outcome of a woman being classified differently than a man. Inequality is a systemic issue and it continues to require a systemic and bridge-building approach – one that RBG has taken throughout her career.
Another remarkable relationship in RBG’s life was with that of fellow Justice Anthony Scalia – her unlikely BFF on the court. Their relationship was featured in the film because it showed her ability to work with those she fundamentally disagreed with. Ginsburg and Scalia were able to find common interests in their mutual love of the Opera and mutual respect for each other’s writing. For decades, the pair and their spouses shared dinner together on New Year’s Eve.
Despite their widely differing opinions in Court, they treated each other as equals and with respect.
Ruth routinely commented on Scalia’s humor – and it was humor that added another dimension to Ruth and Marty’s marriage. The couple had two children – their daughter, Jane Ginsburg, is a professor at Columbia Law School and their son, James Steven Ginsburg, is the founder of a classical-music recording company based in Chicago. In the film, you hear Jane and James recall Ruth’s ineptitude in the kitchen – it was Marty who assumed household cooking responsibilities. They also spoke about their father’s persistent goal to make his wife laugh – he would proudly share his limited successes in making her chuckle – and her children would document these occasions in a booklet they called “Mommy Laughs”.
Sadly, Marty’s passed away on June 27, 2010 – within a week of their 57th wedding anniversary and the same day of RBG’s mother’s death.
Theme 2: Playing both the protagonist and the hero, RBG is small, but mighty.
Throughout the film, there is a persistent juxtaposition between a featherweight, small Jewish woman and a dissenting, important voice that has galvanized the next generation of women. At 5’1” and a petite, albeit strong, frame, one can’t help but wonder if her size has worked in her favor throughout her professional career – how easy to underestimate this tiny woman in a “man’s world”? They never saw her coming. Whether unconsciously or intentionally, RBG turned what could have been a weakness into one of her greatest strengths. To all my fellow petite, short gals – with a mantra of “And though she but little, she is fierce!” (Shakespeare) – never underestimate the grit and perseverance of those who are vertically challenged!
“Though she be but little, she is fierce!”
(https://shakespearecomesalivesdsu2017.wordpress.com/group-one-cultural-topic/ | Though She Be But Little She is Fierce: A Feminist Analysis of Hermia)
While Shakespeare was rarely kind to women in his work – most likely a product of his time – RBG embodies this psyche. Her empowerment is inspiring and acknowledging such allows us to keep this quote refreshing and relevant in our modern age.
Throughout the film there were numerous comparisons to Ruth as a celebrity, a superhero and her similarity to Notorious BIG, however the filmmakers did a nice job balancing her “cool factor” with the seriousness of the cases she fought for and won. She systematically challenged the legal underpinnings of sexism in our country – and the film features the people whose lives were personally impacted by her work.
Ruth’s work continues to speak loudly and is positively affecting more American lives than almost anyone in history.
Theme 3: RBG’s work ethic is unmatched – and it is comprised of planks, push-ups and mental perseverance.
When asked what RBG would like to be remembered for, she stated, “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”
RBG is the embodiment of work ethic. Her passion for the law and social justice drives her to work tirelessly despite her age – and it is probably just the cure for aging. Marty once commented, “She works like fury all the time. The country’s better off as it is.”
When Marty and Ruth were in law school, Marty went through his first bout of cancer. Ginsburg’s determination to balance new motherhood, assist her husband in fighting cancer, and navigate law school defined her formidable work ethic and ability to overcome adversity.
Marty was Ruth’s biggest champion – he campaigned and advocated for Ruth’s appointment to the Supreme Court. He prided himself on taking care of Ruth throughout her grueling work schedule – a schedule that was self-induced, I might add. He would show up to her office and coax her to come home and eat dinner before continuing her work into the wee morning hours. She was known to get by on two hours of sleep, but then “catch up” by sleeping all weekend.
I was laughing to myself through this portion of the film – my husband often plays the role of “Marty”. Hours will go by while I’m finishing up a project where I’ve not gotten up, moved, or eaten – for fear I’ll lose momentum. Scott will bring food over to my studio or order takeout for nourishment. Having someone on your team who believes in what you’re doing, despite her inconvenient schedule, enables professional pursuits that would not be achievable alone.
On each clerk’s birthday, Marty would bake a cake. Ruth would accompany the cake with a concise note: “It’s your birthday, so Marty baked a cake.” He adored her and treated her like a human being.
RBG has strategically approached social injustice and civil rights by playing to the long arc of justice. Her patient strategy has been laid brick by brick. Ruth is very confident in her own abilities and once wrote, “I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other.”
There is something to be said for someone with such confidence in their craft. Personally, I take pride in knowing that if I sit and work on something long enough, I’m confident I can solve the problem, complete the painting, or finish the article – and do it better than most. This was instilled in me by both of my parents early on in life. A report card where I received a B was not good enough – with hard work, I could get an “A”. And I consider myself as someone who uses whatever talent she has to do her work to the very best of her ability.
There is also something to be said for RBG’s quiet, business-like demeanor that lacks the dreaded label applied to women – “emotional”. She is extremely effective at using the law, the facts, and her oral advocacy to captivate an audience. She internalizes before speaking and never raises her voice.
RBG also relies on her physical workouts to power her through the Court’s grueling schedule. Having picked up a copy of “The RBG Workout” by her certified personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, there is no end to my admiration for RBG. After a bout of colon cancer in 1999, Marty insisted Ruth get a personal trainer in order to rebuild the strength she lost through radiation and chemo. Bryant worked in the District Court’s Clerk’s Office and had trained several judges. After years of twice-weekly workouts, RBG’s bone density began to increase.
Personally, the mental clarity gained from a sweat and endorphin-inducing workout is what energizes every other part of my life. The act of doing something good for my body further strengthens my professional work.
RBG is a small, yet mighty, fierce protector of equal rights who uses her work ethic to advance the long arc of justice – all hail the Notorious RBG!
The documentary left me with a fire in my belly. Throughout the weekend, my mom and I reflected on this fire. What is it about a seemingly frail grandmother that has inspired audiences and packed crowded auditoriums just to hear her utter a single word?
As my mom stated, “Don’t let RBG’s small stature fool you! She is a force to be reckoned with and we are fortunate to have her fighting for equality. Love that this strong intelligent woman is still going strong at 85!” Turns out, mom was a fan of the film and of RBG.
The film is bold – and badly needed in a time when equality and social justice progress is being threatened. RBG’s powerful dissents have elevated the importance of the Supreme Court’s proceedings for a new generation of democracy – she has made the court relevant in the lives of Millennials. The Notorious RBG represents the promise of equality and justice.
The ruling is… you – RBG – are supreme.
Staring: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane and James Ginsburg, Clara Spera, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Lilly Ledbetter, Sharron Frontiero and Stephen Wiesenfeld, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, Bill Clinton, Ted Olson, Judge Harry Edwards, Senator Orrin Hatch, Eugene Scalia and Bryant Johnson