Documentary on the life and work of US Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose legal legacy changed the world for woman. Now, at 85, RBG continues to fight for equal rights and has become an unexpected cultural icon.
Through interviews and unprecedented access to Ginsburg's life outside the court, RBG tells the story of Ginsburg's love affairs with both the Constitution and her beloved husband Marty.
I have seen many CNN documentaries, more so in recent times when world news has suddenly taken on the attributes of a B-grade sitcom, so I knew I was in for a treat when I started to watch this one. RBG is one of those movies that will appeal to anyone who is interested in political intrigue, human rights, or the theatrical excesses of Grand Opera! Or all three. Ginsberg is a woman I had heard about, but it was fascinating to fill in the gaps and learn of her many accomplishments. In part, I think her success is due to her unassuming personality and ability to effect change through cerebral rather than physical processes - using the power of rhetoric rather than relying on the loud voice and pushy manner which are so often the hallmarks of a wannabe change agent.
Not that Ginsberg eschews the physical. The opening scenes show her doing a workout at a gym, one that someone half her age might find a challenge. No fancy makeup or designer leotards introduce her character; she appears as a no-frills, very real person complete with post-exercise sweat and functional sports attire. She is a real person through and through, one who has left all pretensions at the gym door. She challenges the viewer to accept her as she is, no more, no less. The directors chose deliberately to start the movie with the in-your-face reality of Ginsberg's exercising. Most documentary makers would have left this technique till later in the movie, when the viewers might be more receptive. But this was an artistic gamble which paid off in terms of audience engagement.
Having introduced the athletic "little old lady" as she is today, the documentary then sets out to present her life in a series of then-and-now snapshots. The viewer already knows that this is a movie about a lawyer who has changed history through her unswerving dedication to human rights and equality, earning the title of the Notorious RBG in the process, but so much more is revealed as her story unfolds. The viewer meets Ginsberg the quiet college student, Ginsberg the wife, Ginsberg the mother and grandmother, and Ginsberg the opera lover. Her personal life is interwoven with her career development; instead of being presented in a linear fashion, it moves around through flashbacks and flashforwards, using archive footage and interviews as links. The upside of this is that the older, grainier footage does not become tiresome because there is the continual juxtaposition of modern camera techniques which are much easier on the eye.
I loved the subtle humour which surfaces at regular intervals. Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who co-produced and co-directed, must have devoted a great deal of time to the planning of the documentary so that it would appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Right at the start, the movie shows a series of "establishment" shots with a voiceover of negative comments about Ginsberg, all to a background of Rossini's Barber of Seville overture. It then cuts to the gym floor, and the music shifts to Dessa's The Bullpen, forming the background for Ginsberg's own words. A wonderful way to move seamlessly from conservative to progressive, underlying Ginsberg's effect on the status quo! Later in the movie there is a wonderful shot of Ginsberg sitting in the foreground, dwarfed by conservative statues (all male); they are all motionless while she is very much alive and vibrant! Her height is highlighted again on more than one occasion when she is standing in the group of nine justices, conspicuous by her gender and her tiny stature. Humour goes to a new level in the course of a mock game show; she is shown watching from the sidelines and delighting in her role as spectator rather than protagonist.
Ginsberg's method for effecting change was to pick her battles, building her profile through the judicious choice of cases whose outcome would effect gradual progress. Rather than taking an aggressive approach which might not be successful, she concentrated on a quiet, steady and highly calculated process, relying on the semantics of her argument, confident that her reasoning was so perfect than nobody could shoot it down. Such was her success that young people. both male and female, began to see her as an example of something they could aspire to. The ultimate sign that she had made it was her representation in popular culture. Ginsberg as a caricature of Wonder Woman, a tattoo depicting her as Ruth The Riveter, and many others. Her words to students were pertinent and encouraging, and pitched at exactly the right level. The faces of the youngsters she was addressing conveyed clear engagement with her message. And, as anyone who has ever spoken to young people will appreciate, it takes a competent and compelling speaker to hold their interest for more than a few minutes.
The US presidents and other influential people in her life were all shown through archive footage. George W Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all interacted with Ginsberg at various times throughout her career - especially Clinton, who was responsible for appointing her to her role as Supreme Court Justice. Trump gets a look in too, albeit a very brief one: Ginsberg is told to back off when she makes a less than complimentary comment about him because such behaviour does not befit her judicial role.
Although the 1970s Women's Liberation and Black Civil Rights movements feature prominently as catalysts for change and were certainly an inspiration to Ginsberg in her career, she makes it clear that her battle is for human rights - irrespective of gender or other factors. She stands for equality, not the supremacy of one group over another. Parental rights, gender based (housing) entitlements, equal representation on committees - all were the subjects of individual court cases, and each success was another step on the long pathway to full equality. The most memorable quote in the movie - "I ask no favour for my sex, all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks" sums up her attitude that it is equality, not dominance, that is important. I felt that the directors had selected the cases to highlight with this in mind as I was left with a rounded overview of Ginsberg's aims.
I have watched this documentary three times so far and am looking forward to watching it again. Each time I picked up something I had not seen on the previous viewing; there is a wealth of information packed into the 97 minutes of running time. I would like to have seen a short "extras" movie included on the DVD as well as the main title so that some of the wonderful mise-en-scene components could be unpacked. There was a full set of acknowledgments in the end credits, but I would like to have known more about the background like the music and the physical setting. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie itself and so did the group of friends who watched it with me.
One would not expect a film/documentary about the life of a US Justice to be something that would have mass appeal. That being said, there has been a recent change in the type of people that are becoming cultural icons. Moving away from the Kardashians and Jenners, the younger generations have started following those people that are actively working to bring to light or improve what we have come to see as a flawed system.
Being based in America, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a person I was not aware of, but I have heard the name in popular TV shows (such as Family Guy and The Simpsons), though no context is provided. But having an understanding of how difficult it is to make changes in the US due to their multi-layered two-party system, I was intrigued to see what how this fight for equality was attributed to her.
The documentary covers the entirety of Justice Ginsburg's life, so there is a wide variety of photos, videos, and audio that all come in a variety of qualities. Initially, it does stand out, and the transitions from grainy footage to sharp, clear HD was visually jolting, but as the film progresses, the transitions become less apparent as you are drawn into the content, rather than being distracted by the packaging.
The story being told is indeed remarkable and worthy of a film feature. Showing how she was inspired by lawyers protecting people's rights during the "Red Scare", and went on to become a lawyer in a world where female lawyers weren't wanted, to find work in a world that didn't want to employ her, and then stand up for equal rights by convincing people to change the laws. All done through hard work and a well thought-out strategy (all while looking after her child, and a husband who had cancer).
With the way the world is today, the rise of "SJW's" (standing for "social justice warrior", and is a negative term for an individual who promotes socially progressive views, including feminism, civil rights, and multiculturalism and identity politics), RBG is the piece that reflects on how change was actually achieved in the States. Not by attacking those in places of power, but by bringing them to your side by getting them to empathise with your struggles, and working both sides of the issue.
RBG follows the important cases that Ginsburg brought before the Supreme Court in the 70's and displays excerpts of actual audio from the cases. You hear her specific choices in words, the disdain and patronizing way in which she was often treated, but most importantly, you hear her not getting flustered and instead, having an ironclad argument that is prepared for any type of rebuttal. RBG fights not only for women's rights, but also men's rights, and that is the key that has led to her popularity in that she isn't attacking a group or trying to remove privileges. She is simply trying to remove barriers to provide actual equality.
We have a tendency to support the underdog in battles, and this is a brilliant example of it happening in real-life for altruistic reasons. There are no self-serving motives. This woman wants the world to be a better place and is willing to do the work to get it that way, and I can't help but feel proud when I watch it happen.
Not only celebrating a successful litigative career, and her movement towards dissent as the balance of the Supreme Court turns more towards the Conservative side, RBG serves as a how-to for a world that wants to enact change. Forget the endless marches and small petitions. Find specific examples that can highlight the wrongdoing and can be used to change the law. Do not be the vegan that calls meat-eaters "monsters". Do not be the keyboard warrior that attacks people online assuming "oppressed minorities" are offended by things. The way to win an argument is not to yell. Be better. Do not aim for the moon. Work for small changes that will create a precedent and build up over time.
She is the Notorious RBG. She balanced family and career. She has made an impact by improving equal rights in the United States. A must-see.
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