Late in RBG, we see a telling photograph of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first two women appointed to the United States Supreme Court. They sit in an opulent chamber, pleasant and prim, surrounded by imposing sculptures and paintings of male jurists. These starchy old men, replete with bushy mustaches and flowing robes, seem to stare past, through, and around the two women. Indeed, RBG shows us that Ginsburg stood at the base of a mountain and was told that she shouldn’t, couldn’t, and wouldn’t ever dare to scale it. She did, and then dedicated her life to making that path easier for other women to do the same.
RBG hops around in time, using her confirmation hearing before the United States Senate as a hub. Ginsburg recounts her roots as the daughter of immigrants who slashed her way through a thicket of sexism to become one of the first female graduates from Columbia Law School. Despite her obvious brilliance, Ginsburg found it impossible to gain entry in the boys club of Manhattan law firms. She takes a teaching job at Rutgers, where cases of sex-based discrimination ultimately compel her to join the fight for gender equality.
Dry and somewhat somber, Ginsburg draws enormous inspiration from her husband, Martin Ginsburg. He brings a bright light to her life, and she often beams next to him during interviews. After his death, Ginsburg throws herself into work as a conduit for her grief, but the void left behind is quite apparent. Her voice trembles as she reads his final letter to her, and moments like this do much to humanize someone who spent years as an aloof public figure.
It’s initially surprising that Ginsburg’s burnt-toast personality eventually inspires a pop culture phenomenon to sprout up around her. As a brave and blunt dissenting voice on an increasingly conservative bench, younger generations have grown to admire Ginsburg as a champion for those who have been ignored, repressed, or abused. She’s given the moniker the “Notorious R.B.G.” and shows up on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and in Kate McKinnon’s off-the-wall SNL impression. (Ginsburg takes all this with good humor. She giggles at McKinnon’s schtick says she and Biggie Smalls have a lot in common. After all, “we’re both Brooklyn-bred.”)
As a document of Ginsburg’s considerable contributions, RBG stands above the saccharine biopic, On the Basis of Sex. The filmmakers eschew traditional narration and rely on eye-opening anecdotes to propel the story. Childhood friends, fellow jurists, and even Bill Clinton give us fascinating insights into Ginsburg’s climb up the legal ladder. But the real star of the show is Ginsburg herself. Her segments are real and relaxed, and she shows the audience an engaging sense of humor. Ginsburg’s arguments before and on behalf of the Supreme Court are presented in the form of original recordings, allowing the crisp, compelling force of her position to shine through. The directors make the wise decision to let Ginsburg’s story unfurl in a way that’s casual, entertaining, and yet still moving all the way through.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” says Margaret Mead. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class, and yet was assured that her failure was certain. She saw a society where women could be fired for getting pregnant, or paid half as much because “girls can’t do math.” With jaw-dropping patience, Ginsburg rewrote the law books and remade the world around her. At one point, Ginsburg shares a scene with her granddaughter, a recent Harvard Law graduate who proudly notes that her class was evenly split between men and women. Perhaps that’s R.B.G.’s greatest legacy: She took what was once unthinkable and made it mundane.
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