Reel Critic: ‘RBG’


RBG highlights the life of its eponymous hero.

If nice girls do not file lawsuits, then Ruth Bader Ginsburg sure is not one.

Screened in a packed Dana Auditorium on Nov. 1, the 2018 documentary “RBG” recounts Justice Ginsburg’s path from Brooklyn to the United States Supreme Court. Using archival footage and interviews, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen highlight her pioneering work against gender discrimination in the 1970s and take us behind the scenes of the 85-year-old’s achievements in the legal world. 

It is needless to point out that the film is timely. Between Brett Kavanaugh’s turbulent confirmation to the Supreme Court and the midterm elections, questions of gender equality have been of particular interest to the public. At Middlebury, students have voiced their concerns about sexual harassment in both writing and at protests, and The Campus dedicated an editorial to affirming survivors. As the recent nominations of both Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch have added conservative voices to the bench, Ginsburg’s dissenting statements have received more attention than ever. 

In the first few minutes of “RBG” we are reminded that attention is not always positive. Familiar Republican voices and phrases like “this witch” and “Anti-American” echo in the auditorium against sunny shots of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., followed by an image that by now feels like a rite of passage. Sixty-year-old Ginsburg sits in front of an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee wearing a blue pantsuit, much like Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford would after her. Yet this time we are not dealing with allegations of sexual harassment, but the pinnacle of a brilliant attorney’s career. 

Ginsburg entered the legal world at a time when the legal world did not want women. Beginning her law degree at Harvard Law School in 1956 after her graduation from Cornell University, Ginsburg was one of only nine women in a class of 500. The environment proved to be hostile. Female students were reportedly never called upon in classes and were questioned by the dean of students about how they could justify taking up a place that could have been filled by a man.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Completing both her own and her husband’s work during his illness while caring for their young daughter, she established herself as a relentlessly dedicated and disciplined professional. 

Ginsburg has since become a champion of gender discrimination cases. West and Cohen give us brief snapshots of the landmark cases that she defended in front of the Supreme Court, ranging from Frontiero v. Richardson in 1973, which determined that benefits of the U.S. military could not be allocated differently on the basis of sex, to Duren v. Missouri in 1979, in which she challenged legislation making jury duty optional for women. Out of the five Supreme Court cases Ginsburg argued, she won four. 

It is these scenes that remind us of how recent such developments are. How easy it is to forget that 50 short years ago it was common for a woman to be fired for being pregnant, or to be required to have her husband’s approval to obtain a credit card. At its most fundamental level, “RBG” reminds us of the women who paved the way for us to be here today. 

But “RBG” is not only relevant to women. Through its depiction of Ginsburg’s husband Marty, the film reverses an old proverb to show that behind this great woman, there is a great man. Martin Ginsburg, who passed away in 2010 after battling cancer and worked tirelessly to give his wife’s work the credit and attention it deserved. Using his numerous connections in law, business and academia, he rallied to ensure that her name was on President Clinton’s shortlist of Supreme Court nominees in 1993. According to those interviewed throughout the film, it was Marty who allowed the reserved and soft-spoken Ruth to be herself and focus on what she did best.

“We need more men like [Marty]”, said Gioia Kuss ’83 during the brief reflection session which followed the screening. “[Men] that believe in women, that believe in equality.” 

Given Ginsburg’s demonstrated legal talent and intellect, it is a shame how little time the film spends exploring it. Oversaturating the film with repetitive computer animations and awkward pop culture references, it seems as though West and Cohen are trying hard to make “RBG” relevant to an imagined millennial audience. 

Unnecessarily so: the few instances in which Ginsburg is allowed to describe her relationship to the practice of the law are moving, even electrifying. As she reflects on debates about partisanship in the Supreme Court which followed her disputed comments about President Trump, the audience is heavy with silence, only to be interrupted by yet another playful scene of Ginsburg dressed as the Duchess of Krakenthorp for an opera production. 

Footage of 85-year-old Ginsburg lifting bright green barbells while wearing a “Super Diva” sweatshirt is certainly entertaining, but it can hardly satisfy the audience’s yearning to understand the intellect behind four landmark Supreme Court cases and numerous dissenting statements. The result is an almost-but-not-quite account of a woman whom we know to be a legal powerhouse.

Whether or not you agree with Ginsburg’s politics or her status as an internet icon, one thing is clear. In advocacy and resilience, we can all stand to be a little more like the Notorious RBG.