The so-called notorious RBG may be the first Supreme Court justice to ever be nicknamed after a rapper, but Julie Cohen and Betsy West demonstrate exactly how the soft-spoken and petite judge earned the title of “notorious” in their new documentary RBG.
RBG is a celebration of the long life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that strives to go beyond the memes and scathing dissents to understand the woman beneath the robe. Cohen and West had their work cut out for them. Ginsburg has 25 years of service on the bench to dissect, and she is so reserved that at one point in the movie, her children tell the directors that they kept a “mommy laughed” jar to put money in every time Ginsburg strayed from her normally solemn expression.
Despite this, Cohen and West deliver a narrative that will make audiences both laugh and gain a new understanding, and perhaps appreciation, of the 85-year-old who spent decades incrementally fighting gender discrimination in the law.
“The challenge was to let the other side of her personality come through: the exuberant and sometimes even hilarious side,” West and Cohen said in an interview with The Rational Creature. “The most effective way to do that turned out to be showing her in the context of things that bring out that side of her.”
One example of this is when we see Ginsburg on stage, exchanging her ceremonial black robes for a bright green dress to perform as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in the opera, The Daughter of the Regiment. But even when indulging one of her biggest passions, opera, Ginsburg still uses the moment to honor her life’s mission of fighting for social justice.
As the duchess, she says, “Dropping traditions that have worked and are continuing to work is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Sound familiar? That is because Ginsburg pulled the line straight out of her infamous dissent for Shelby County v. Holder, a case in which the court decided 5-4 to overturn sections of the Voting Rights Act that they felt were no longer applicable.
The movie carefully curates cases such as these to exhibit the work that Ginsburg has been doing on the bench, often narrating her own words on the screen. By doing so, the directors avoid lengthy explanations of why Ginsburg’s work matters and opt to let Ginsburg speak for herself, literally.
“We chose cases that were important in advancing gender equality but we also focused on those that would be gripping to an audience of mostly non-lawyers sitting in a movie theater,” Cohen and West said. “The cases we chose all have Ginsburg making a strong and dramatic argument on audio tape.”
Ginsburg’s words have exactly the dramatic impact West and Cohen had hoped for, leaving many in the theater, who had previously been chuckling, staring up in silent awe. As a female audience member, my awe was mixed with appreciation for her work, such as fighting against gender pay discrimination.
Fighting is nothing new for Ginsburg, however. The movie opens with audio snippets of Ginsburg’s right-wing haters calling her a “demon,” a “devil,” and a “threat to America.”
“We chose to give a quick burst of trash talk at the top of the film as a provocative way to give a sense what she's fighting against,” West and Cohen said. “She's always been a fighter.”
The movie tracks Ginsburg’s battles from her college days at Cornell, followed by her time at Harvard Law School, where she was one of nine women among a class of over 500. While there, she overcame sexism and resistance to the idea of her becoming a lawyer. She also took care of her baby daughter, as well as her husband, Marty, when he was ill. Additionally. she joined the Harvard Law Review, a distinction reserved for the top 25 students in the class.
This is all in a day’s work for Ginsburg, who admits that she often stays up late working, and catches up on sleep on the weekends.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie was the romantic, gushy love story between Ginsburg and her husband Marty. For a fiercely independent, feminist woman, Ginsburg admits the importance of a man in her life. “Marty was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Ginsburg tells the camera.
Marty is portrayed as the opposite to Ginsburg. He is a larger-than-life goofball, and Ginsburg’s biggest supporter. Since Ginsburg was not one to toot her own horn, we learn that Marty was instrumental in convincing President Bill Clinton to consider Ginsburg for the job of Supreme Court justice.
Mary’s unwavering support for Ginsburg’s career and love of who she was as a person makes their's a love story for the ages. Ruth and Marty Ginsburg reflect of the type of relationship I strive toward having. By using old videos of the couple together, RBG touches audience members and necessitates tissues.
Reinforcing their message of female empowerment and gender equality, the film-making team for RBG was largely female, with women in all of the top creative positions. Directors Cohen and West said that this dynamic influenced the work environment for the movie.
“We dispensed with that thing you sometimes feel as a woman that you're not being taken seriously,” Cohen and West said.
After watching RBG it would be hard not to take Ruth Bader Ginsburg seriously, whether or not you support her policies. The movie displays her prowess time and time again, both in the courtroom and outside of it, such as in the gym.
“We want people to leave the theater feeling inspired, feisty and as pumped up as Justice Ginsburg after doing a tough set of planks!” Cohen and West said.
More so than that, the directors explained that the purpose of the movie was to demonstrate why RBG deserves icon status. Following Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court seat vacated by Anthony Kennedy, Cohen and West said that Ginsburg is likely to become even more prominent.
“It looks like the Court will have another reliable conservative vote,” they said. “That means Justice Ginsburg may well be writing more of the hard-hitting dissents she's become known for in the past few years.”
These liberal dissents made her “notorious.”
By exploring Ginsburg’s important work on gender equality and revealing her terrific work ethic, however, RBG makes the case for why “renowned” might be a more fitting descriptor.
Amanda is a journalist currently working at CNN, but previously worked at the Hartford Courant, MSNBC, the Republican-American, WNYU 89.1 F.M., Prague.tv, The PragueCast, and Scholastic News. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and a B.S. in Media, Culture & Communications from NYU. When she is not chasing down a story, Amanda is an avid traveler, a dancer, and a lover of all things outdoors. Visit her website for more.