Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, but she’s probably the first justice to become a full-fledged pop-cultural phenomenon. “RBG,” a loving and informative documentary portrait of Justice Ginsburg during her 85th year on earth and her 25th on the bench, is both evidence of this status and a partial explanation of how it came about.
Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the film is a jaunty assemblage of interviews, public appearances and archival material, organized to illuminate its subject’s temperament and her accomplishments so far. Though it begins with audio snippets of Justice Ginsburg’s right-wing detractors — who see her as a “demon,” a “devil” and a threat to America — “RBG” takes a pointedly high road through recent political controversies. Its celebration of Justice Ginsburg’s record of progressive activism and jurisprudence is partisan but not especially polemical. The filmmakers share her convictions and assume that the audience will, too.
Which might be true, and not only because much of the audience is likely to consist of liberals. Before she was named to the federal bench by Jimmy Carter in 1980, the future justice had argued a handful of important sex-discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court. What linked these cases — she won five out of six — was the theory that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment should apply to women and could be used to remedy discrepancies in hiring, business practices and public policy.
The idea that women are equal citizens — that barring them from certain jobs and educational opportunities and treating them as the social inferiors of men are unfair — may not seem especially controversial now. “RBG” uses Justice Ginsburg’s own experiences to emphasize how different things were not so long ago. At Harvard Law School, she was one of nine women in a class of hundreds, and was asked by the dean (as all the women were) why she thought she deserved to take what should have been a man’s place.
The biographical part of “RBG” tells a story that is both typical and exceptional. It’s a reminder that the upward striving of first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants in the middle decades of the 20th century was accompanied by fervent political idealism. Justice Ginsburg’s career was marked by intense intellectual ambition and also by a determination to use the law as an instrument of change.