‘RBG’ is a super documentary about a modern-day superhero
Directed by: Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Starring: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem and Nina Totenberg
“RBG” – “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, quoting Sarah Grimke
Ms. Grimke, a feminist pioneer, lived during the 19th century, and her feelings certainly were justified for the time. Well, in the enlightening documentary “RBG”, we see that Justice Ginsburg took these words to heart in the 20th and 21st century, due to the state of women’s rights in the 1970s. In the process, she became a pioneer too and a paramount champion for equal rights through her tireless work.
“(She’s) the closest thing to a superhero I know.” – Gloria Steinem
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West worked hard to deliver a biography of this extraordinary 85-year-old woman from Brooklyn, and they strike a nice balance between Justice Ginsburg’s personal and professional sides via a breezy and informative movie experience.
Photos from yesterdecade, friends, family, colleagues, and Justice Ginsburg dive into her past to help explain how the woman known as Notorious RBG earned her nickname. A first generation and second generation American on her father’s and mother’s side, respectively, Justice Ginsburg was only 17 when her mom passed away. Although her mother was strict, she was loving and gave valuable advice that stayed with Justice Ginsburg to this day. Her mother’s specific advice will not be named in this review (because why spoil the surprise?), but it absolutely helped shape her work ethic.
She studied at the best universities (Cornell, Harvard and Columbia), met the love of her life, Marty Ginsburg, and they started a family while in law school. Justice Ginsburg may appear serious and soft spoken, and yes, these observations are absolutely true, but the film points to several examples that Marty was gregarious and outspoken. Despite their personality differences, they were a loving couple, who also carried mutual respect for one another. Although Justice Ginsburg did not necessarily need Marty’s support to succeed, she had it, and her career blossomed.
In fact, one of Marty’s daily tasks was to ensure that his wife would come home for dinner and eventually sleep. Apparently, she does not need sleep. Only a few hours a night is a common practice.
Certainly, her celebrity is quite unique, and the film covers fun and healthy doses of current pop culture references, including “Saturday Night Live”, which the Supreme Court Justice appreciates and embraces. These deserved accolades originate from her work on the Supreme Court, including her famous dissenting opinions, but her work during the 1970s truly defines her.
Her landmark wins from 40 years ago are now mainstream views.
One of the documentary’s big surprises is the level of inequity (under the law) between men and women during that time, but Justice Ginsburg, as a persistent trial lawyer, pushed the right arguments and - more importantly – convinced the courts to agree with her.
The film begins with Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), and it chronicles several more cases that deserve applause and standing ovations.
Hey, “RBG” deserves applause and standing ovations too, because in just 97 minutes, this documentary successfully chronicles the personal and professional life of a superhero, one whose superpowers have lifted - and will continue to lift - countless feet off of women’s necks for generations.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.