Hearing about this documentary out of Sundance, it seemed too easy to dismiss. There’s been sort of a cultural moment surrounding Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that has been building over the past decade or so, culminating in the 2015 publication of the playful biography Notorious RBG. If the Internet* had a badass grandma—the way it has an endless supply of boyfriends—it would be Ginsburg. But thankfully RBG spends more time on the substance of this incredible woman’s life than it does on her as a meme.
That isn’t to discount the impact of Ginsburg as iconography, but if the documentary can create an even deeper appreciation among those who have purchased a candle or tote bag emblazoned with her visage, that’s a far loftier goal than simply celebrating her as a totem of 2010s feminism. Notorious RBG authors Shana Knizhnik and Irin Carmon are engaging interview subjects, and they recognize the extraordinary life and career that makes her worthy of such admiration.
RBG is a survey of the justice’s life, and while relating the challenges Ginsburg faced as a woman going to law school in the 1950s to her career at the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project and her opinions on the Supreme Court is a very obvious throughline, the film unifies them very well. Ginsburg is a conservative woman by nature, using a strategy of incremental progress to help create a large societal change over time. Protesting isn’t her style, but RBG argues that carefully constructed legal arguments are, and may be even more impactful.
Even as something of a SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) follower, I didn’t know much about Justice Ginsburg’s personal life. And while she has more professional accomplishments than most people would dream of, her private life is almost as interesting. Her relationship with her husband is also a cornerstone to her political ideology in terms of sex equality but even more than that, her journey just proves how dedicated she is to her work and who benefits from that work.
Perhaps it is easy to give RBG too much credit for beating expectations. It is not a documentary one watches for the visuals, but the editing is slick and the pacing is just right. The interviews are well done, and feature a mix of recognizable faces and those who have an important perspective on Justice Ginsburg. My favorite might be Republican Senator Orinn Hatch, who provides a window into the kind of decorum and respect that seems to be mostly absent from politics as of late.
It’s those details that make RBG an engaging look at one of the most important legal and political figures of our time.
RBG opens in Philly theaters today.
*By “the Internet” I basically mean millenial women and tumblr users
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.