“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
[Sarah Moore Grimké]
Balanced, thoughtful, and surprisingly smart documentary about the Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“RBG”) that chronicles her incredible journey carrying the weight of female equality into the 21st century. A figure at times divisive and wonderfully reflective on her role and her pursuit for equal opportunity; RBG, at the heart of her character, is a figure deserving of the reputation as the quintessential example for female empowerment. You don’t have to agree with everything she stands for (and I certainly don’t as an attorney), but one can readily appreciate the presence of sheer competence and significance that RBG demonstrates.
Directors Julie Cohen & Betsy West offer an object lesson in filming to directors Roberta Grossman & Sophie Sartain (Seeing Allred) by creating a documentary that makes the requisite effort to show the multi-dimensional aspects of a character through the use of competent creative design and language that promotes the central figure without the nauseating propaganda that the latter produced. I’d recommend that Sheila O’Malley (Roger Ebert) watch Seeing Allred before using up her superlatives (“[RBG] never digs deeper than a superficial fangirl-style”) for the sake of her own credibility to judge political documentaries.
RBG delves into the Notorious One’s fight for female equality through the classrooms of Harvard Law, where she was an anomaly (one of nine women in a class of hundreds) in a sea of male faces and being questioned for “stealing” seats from men. She tells of a time “when women were not wanted by the legal profession” and how she saw herself as a kind of “kindergarten teacher in those days because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.”
RBG chronicles her unabashed marriage to Martin D. Ginsburg and life of moderate domestication without reducing the decision to be a wife as some period of subserviency. Incredibly the role her husband played and his ultimate passing that forced her deeper into the mines of legal adjudication in an effort to finish strong her final (pending) days on the Supreme Court. As Shellah Kolhatkar (New Yorker) writes: “the film is as much a romance about the two of them, and how they repeatedly fought for one another, as it is about the changing legal landscape.”
The film delves into her friendship with the imminent conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, a fine example to our culture to strive towards a politics of humanity instead of continuing in the zero-sum paradigms that our political climate has become. The film makes fine use of the legal arguments that strike to the core of who the Notorious One is: adding layers of creativity behind the use of Ginsburg’s oral argument audio before the nation’s top court, as well as her dissenting opinions when she was finally nominated to the Bench.
The film’s framing of the story through the language of her confirmation hearing was effective. The only serious problem was that the documentary was far too short and far too differential to her celebrity—unable to meaningfully engage with those outside voices that can paint the necessary context for her polarizing voice in today’s society (e.g. dissent in Hobby Lobby or Gonzalez). Focusing on the female equality as simply an opportunity for equal footing with men is far too simplistic an explanation to carry her ideas past those earliest years. By framing the issue for the audience in such reductionistic terms, the directors were simply announcing the tropes of Liberal prophets.
Still a fine, solid documentary worthy of RBG’s reputation and your time. As A.O. Scott writes: “The movie’s touch is light and its spirit buoyant, but there is no mistaking its seriousness or its passion.”