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Review: RBG (2018)

RBG (2018)

Directed by: Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Premise: A documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg covering her early life, law practice, and her legacy as an advocate for women’s rights.

What Works: In recent years, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a feminist icon. This woman, who has been a member of the Supreme Court for a quarter century, has recently enjoyed traction in pop culture as evidenced by the “Notorious RBG” memes and merchandise. The documentary RBG is a biographical piece about the Supreme Court Justice that makes the case for Ginsberg as a major feminist figure of the last half a century. That case is generally well made. She entered male dominated spaces, such as Harvard Law School, and led the way for other women to follow. As a lawyer and activist, Ginsberg took on cases that advanced gender equality and argued many of them successfully before the country’s highest court. She then took a seat on the Supreme Court and interpreted the law with those values in mind. However, many of the best segments of RBG are not so much about the law but about Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a person. Ginsburg is an innately fascinating subject. Her slight frame and soft spoken voice belies a fierce intelligence but also a personable demeanor. Her story is essentially American—the child of immigrants who ascended the social ladder through hard work and perseverance. The heart of RBG is its portrayal of Ginsburg’s relationships with her late husband, family, and coworkers. The stories they tell about her are amusing and occasionally touching. This film effectively humanizes a national figure without trivializing her accomplishments. Like its subject, RBG is easily likable and the film succeeds in its goals of telling Ginsburg’s story in a way that is accessible and inspiring.

What Doesn’t: The irony of RGB is that the legal cases make up the least interesting portions of the movie. The filmmakers don’t get into them in any depth and they assume the profundity of Ginsburg’s work rather than demonstrating in concrete terms how her arguments improved life for American women. RBG falls flat in part because it’s a hagiography. Ginsburg is worth the high regard; she is one of the few people in American history who took hold of the wheels of power and actually turned them. But this film is so enamored with Ginsburg that it never raises any critical questions about its subject or her legal, political, and philosophical positions. Even the interviewees who aren’t of the same liberal cloth as Ginsburg, such as Republican Senator Orin Hatch, still sing her praises. That’s at odds with the disembodied voices of right wing radio heard over the opening credits calling Ginsberg an evil liberal witch. Those critical voices are never heard from again and their absence is especially evident when the filmmakers examine the “Notorious RBG” phenomenon in which Ginsberg has become a feminist icon. Like the court cases, this is also treated perfunctorily. The filmmakers never ask why, at this particular time, an eighty-five year old judge has become the face of a renewed feminist movement. It’s just taken for granted.
Bottom Line: RBG surveys Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and legacy and it is an effective thumbnail sketch of her life’s work with some likable personal details. The film doesn’t cut very deep and it’s essentially a hagiography but the filmmakers do make the case for Ginsburg as a major feminist figure.

Episode: #701 (June 3, 2018)