Arts documentary review

The unexpected rockstar

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rise to notoriety

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Jimmy Carter and Justice Ginsburg shaking hands, c. 1980 in 'RBG,' a Magnolia Pictures release.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Rated PG
Opening May 4

“Who are you supposed to be?” It’s Halloween, and I’m standing in front of my friend as the last light of day creeps in through the window blinds. She’s wearing a black robe that hangs loosely from her shoulders, too small to really fit into them. A delicate, white collar adorns  her neck. “Obviously, I’m Ruth Bader Ginsburg!” she beams. Grinning cheek to cheek, my friend strikes a pose. I raise an eyebrow in confusion. “Who?”

From the back of my mind, this memory floated into clear view. It is a pearl of remembrance, and I cradled it in my hands. Gradually, the lights in the movie theater dimmed. A light piano music started playing, airy yet nostalgic. Then, a figure showed up on the movie screen: Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This is her story. This is how she rose to notoriety.

The documentary starts off very sweetly, with Ginsburg’s childhood. Possessing a sort of “quiet magnetism,” as one of her friends described it, Ginsburg was taught by her mother to be both an independent woman and a lady. She took these lessons with her as the years passed. In an instant, we are shuttled from Ginsburg’s childhood into her years at Cornell. It is there that we meet Marty, her future husband.

They were “total opposites,” describes Professor Arthur Miller. Where Ginsburg was quiet and reserved, Marty was sociable and zany. Their relationship seemed improbable, possibly even surreal. And yet, they become lovebirds for one reason: he cared that she had a brain. A cut back to present day — Ginsburg reveals a tiny smile sneak its way onto her face as she talks about him.

It was here that I began to see what my friend saw so many years ago. Behind the iconography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a woman with a storied past. She had to undergo several obstacles to get where she is now. Filmmakers Cohen and West do their absolute best to highlight the incredible work that she’s done. They introduce us into the beginning of her law career, fulfilling her idea “that you could do something to make your society better.”

A female litigator in a world predominantly run by men, Ginsburg had to work especially hard to earn a name for herself. No one would bat an eye at her, until she made it into the Harvard Law Review that is. Now suddenly, she’s the talk of the town. Although, this is nowhere close to what she could ever imagine achieving.

The year is 1973. Sharron Frontiero recalls how a woman stood in front of the Supreme Court and fought for her. Overwhelmed with the pressure that lay before her, Ginsburg has to make a case for her client against one of the highest powers of the land. But never once do they look away from her argument, as one friend suggested: they “were just glued to her.” She wins that case. She also wins the next one. Five out of the six cases that she brings to the Supreme Court are claimed by her.

Her successes pile on. As President Carter takes the office, a stronger effort is made to put more women in the judicial system. Ginsburg is swept along in this transformation. Eventually in 1993, she was nominated to be a Supreme Justice. Swelled with the excitement of her ascent to power, the music becomes inspirational. I was eagerly waiting to see what she would do next. This is a woman who had fought her way to the top. This is the figure that we know today as Justice Ginsburg.

But, that’s not all she is. The film draws a line between Ginsburg, the embodiment of justice, and Ginsburg, the woman. Here is a person who cracks up when she sees Kate McKinnon play her on SNL. Here is a woman who gets choked up when she reads her husband’s last letter to her.

Here’s an icon for whom young girls all over the nation can admire. Despite everything, she is notorious for what she has fought for: women’s rights, equality, and justice. Something does exist behind the icon that young people crafted for her, and it is bright and pure. So much so, that it can even make a young girl in Southern California glow as she says her name.