What does a perfectly paced bio-homage look like? See “RBG” and enjoy. Using a partial interview format, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen give us a review of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s landmark court cases and a love story so sweet that Martin Ginsberg becomes an icon, too.
One can never tire of hearing an 84 year-old woman forcefully say, “ I ask no favor for my sex~only that our brethren take their feet off our necks.” From here we get all the details of background and schooling. Ruth’s father was from Odessa~ a Russian Jew who worked as a haberdasher. Ginsberg’s stylistic flair and her penchant for wearing lace and beaded jabots and collars may have their roots here.
A Brooklynite, Joan Ruth Bader’s mother suggested to Joan’s kindergarten teacher that her daughter be called “Ruth” since there were so many “ Joans” in her class. Her mother Celia died from cervical cancer while Ruth was in high school. Nina Totenberg, friend and award-winning NPR Legal Affairs correspondent, relays how Ruth could not attend her own graduation because of her mother’s untimely death. Ruth’s only sister, Marilyn, died at six from meningitis when Kiki ( nicknamed by her because of her active kicking ) was just 14 mos. old.
We learn from Ruth that her mother was strict and that she instilled two rules in her: be a lady and learn to fend for yourself. Ginsberg’s humor shines in her retelling of her father sending her to Cornell University. “There were four men to every woman~ an ideal place to send a daughter. I never did a repeat date, until Marty.” She was 17 and he was 18.
The Martin love story is a romantic one. Seeing him on camera, self-deprecating and masterly funny, one gets an idea of why Ruth says that he was the “ most fortunate thing that ever happened to me.” Opposites in temperament, she shy and he the life of the party, they were married and had two children, Jane and James. Both are interviewed on-screen, as is a granddaughter. Directors Cohen and West do a brilliant job of meshing the personal with the professional.
Ruth tells us that “Marty cared that I had a brain.” Ruth graduated from Columbia Law School and they studied at Harvard together while raising toddlers and dealing with Marty’s testicular cancer. She taught at Rutgers and Columbia, and in 1970 was the Director of the Women’s Rights Project. In 1980, Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It was on Carter’s endorsement that Bill Clinton designated Ginsberg as the second female justice of the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Conner being the first.
We see snippets of her inauguration. We are reminded that she loved opera, and gave the eulogy for her friend Justice Antonin Scalia.
While experiencing many indignities as a woman herself, she strategized and put her legal mind to work in order to make equitable law. We forget that in 1970, a woman could be fired if she were pregnant, and that a woman soldier did not get a military housing allowance. Male homemakers could not collect social security benefits. Her arguments were all-encompassing. Ginsberg was not going to be happy with a little code change here and there. Gender-based discrimination does exist, and it hurts everyone.
The Notorious RBG made sure that enduring change happened one dissent and one opinion at a time. She created a legal landscape in the 70’s and the 80’s where equal protection under law meant that “ one did not throw away one’s umbrella in a rainstorm because you did not get wet”. This documentary holds Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in esteem for working so ardently for liberty~ a liberty where the “least is heard with the greatest.” This film is a paean to how change can happen to the benefit of all when a mind like Ginsberg’s decides to serve us all.