In illustrated, Review

Original caricature by Jeff York of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (copyright 2018)

I’m late to the dance reviewing the new documentary RBG, a laudatory examination of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her career, but it seems especially timely to write about it this week. With the travesty of migrant children being ripped from the arms of their mothers and then caged, it’s important to recognize the sexism inherent in the new Trump administration policy. It treats these women and their offspring as second-class citizens, ignoring basic civility and the crucial qualities of maternal caregiving. It’s a status issue that women the world over in fight day in and day out, in so many ways. That’s why such women’s rights and protections have been the cornerstone of Ginsburg’s career. She’s been battling the patriarchy in the United States for over 60 years in court, and it’s why she refuses to retire at 85. There is still far too much work to be done.

It’s hard to believe in this day and age that women in America are still battling for such essentials as equal rights, equal pay, or, for that matter, common decency in the workplace, but they are. Electing a president who bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy” and watching other celebrity males, including another former president, defend their sexist and abusive actions in the age of #MeToo suggests that we haven’t evolved nearly as much as we should have by now. Yet because of people like Ginsburg, our society has taken giant leaps forward over the last half century and without diligent voices like hers, we may still be in the sexist dark ages of the 50’s.

This documentary, by filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, showcases the strides that Ginsberg made for herself in the workplace and a male-dominated society, as well as ultimately for all women in both arenas. When she wanted to go to law school, the patriarchy argued that a woman’s place was in the home or professions that were less demanding, but she persisted and rose to the very top of her class. As a lawyer, she argued many times in front of the Supreme Court on behalf of women in cases that challenged gender inequality and won five of those six cases. She advocated as a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, and even became their general counsel in 1973. It was a historic career long before President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Of course, the crux of her career that most of us are familiar with is her time on the Supreme Court, where she was appointed to by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It’s hard to believe that back then Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah was actually the one who suggested that she be chosen to Attorney General Janet Reno, but politics wasn’t quite as partisan then as it is now. The film showcases many of the cases that came before the Supreme Court once Ginsburg was sworn in as the second female justice in the history of the court, and how she moved more to the left from her earlier centrist positions as the right started to take more of a stronghold on the court. It’s amazing to see that she got along with Antonin Scalia in private as friends, even though they clashed on the court often as he was a hardline Constitutionalist who saw no reason to update or modernize American law.

She did, of course, fully recognizing the need to recognize women and minorities as full citizens with equal rights, even though that wasn’t evident in the original laws as framed by the founders. The film showcases her triumphs, as well as her losses, on such issues as they came before the highest court over the last 25 years, and it’s inspiring to see her fighting to give everyone a chance at the American Dream.

Still, as political as the film is, and clearly timed to serve as a counter to the overreach of the radical right in our modern world, it’s wonderful to see so much of the story be about Ginsberg’s personal life. Interviews with her children illuminate her tenacity to study cases well into the evening, as well as her limits in the kitchen, but mostly, of the great family she and her husband Martin, whom she met at Cornell and married before attending law school at Harvard and Columbia. There’s was a great love story, filled with self-deprecating humor, complementary skills, and passion.

Ginsburg has been through a lot in the past eight years and the film spends a lot of time on both her triumphs and tragedies. Her spouse’s death, a bout with colon cancer, her controversy in speaking out against Trump during the 2016 campaign, all of these difficulties are chronicled here. So is her workout regiment, including weights and strength training, that has kept her nimble and fit well into her eight decade, helping her to live strong and keep fighting the good fight. She may be petite and soft in voice, but everything about the “Notorious RBG”, as many have dubbed her, packs an incredible wallop.

There is humor – she enjoyed Kate McKinnon’s parody of her on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE – and there are all kinds of admirers talking about her on camera from Ginsberg’s former clients to religious leaders to presidents to the press. This is clearly an affectionate study of her, but the Associate Justice is wholly deserving of it, particularly in our #TimesUp times and all that still needs to be accomplished. She is a pioneer, icon, and fighter. And her story is one of this year’s must-see films.

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