'RBG' Traces The Rebellious, Trailblazing Career Of The 85-Year-Old Supreme Court Justice

rgb ruth bader ginsburg documentary
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

One of the earliest scenes of the documentary RBG, a rosy biography of Democratic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, shows the 85-year-old working out at the gym to rap music. Triumphantly lifting dumbbells and doing pushups under the guidance of her longtime fitness trainer Bryant Johnson, Ginsberg is showing off her vivaciousness as the oldest current Supreme Court Justice, a reassuring wink to the many people rooting for her longevity to be indefinite. The thought is admittedly a bit morbid, even moreseo when we hear later about her bouts with cancer in 1999 and 2009. But her wellness is on plenty of liberals' minds -- after Antonin Scalia died, the battle to replace the Justice ended with Merrick Garland, a Trump-appointed conservative, on the bench. The loss of a Democrat could shift the balance of the Supreme Court for a generation.

The idea behind the film wasn’t to focus on the necessity of Ginsburg's point of view under the Trump administration. Co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West were instead interested in profiling the second-ever female Supreme Court Justice during an uptick in her popularity among young Americans. The title of the documentary isn’t merely Ginsburg’s initials, but a nod to her nickname, "Notorious R.B.G.," obviously inspired by the Notorious B.I.G. She earned a reputation for being a judicial rebel following her dissenting opinion in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, in which she defended the need to protect the Voting Rights Act.

"Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet," she famously wrote.

Later that year, the "Notorious R.B.G." became a meme, thanks in part to a blog on Tumblr, which later spawned a book. Its authors, Shana Knizhnik and Irin Carmon, are among the interviewees in the film, offering the millennial perspective on the icon. Other talking heads in the documentary include childhood friends, her two children, and a granddaughter who just graduated from Harvard Law School half a century after Ginsburg became one of its inaugural female enrollees. Ginsburg herself is interviewed, mostly sharing retrospective commentary on her most landmark cases, before and after she joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, appointed by Bill Clinton.

rbg documentary jimmy carter and ruth bader ginsburg
Jimmy Carter & Ruth Bader Ginsburg | Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

RBG follows a biographical chronology, save for some interspersed scenes of the justice in her current daily life. Whenever the film comes to one of those landmark cases, Cohen and West linger on the details of its significance -- like United States v. Virginia, Ginsburg’s first major success as a Supreme Court justice for which she wrote the ruling against the Virginia Military Institute’s males-only admission policy, and Bush v. Gore, the case that declared George W. Bush winner of the 2000 presidential election. Her dissenting opinion in the latter became a turning point for Ginsburg to become a more left-of-center figure on the bench.   

The film highlights other monumental cases from before Ginsberg took her seat as one of the Supremes. Sharron Frontiero appears to discuss the important 1973 sexual discrimination case of Frontiero v. Richardson, in which Ginsburg successfully argued on her behalf as a lawyer representing the ACLU. Ginsburg recalls quoting the 19th century abolitionist and women’s suffrage advocate Sarah Moore Grimke, stating, "I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks."

Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court in 1993 frames the film's storyline, during which she provided biographical and ideological background to the U.S. Senate and anyone watching. Of course, Bill Clinton shows up briefly to discuss choosing Ginsburg for the position. And so does Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who had recommended her in spite of their ideological disagreements. We’re reminded, however, that Ginsburg was considered a more politically moderate judge at the time. We’re also reminded that the Washington of 25 years ago, while then thought of as relatively divided, was still quite bipartisan compared with today.

rbg documentary
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Although the film opens with a montage of anti-Ginsburg soundbites, that's the extent of RBG's negative opinions on its subject. But even with a positive slant, its inclusion of family and friends’ testimonials, and comments from Gloria Steinem and NPR’s Nina Totenberg respectively calling her a "superhero" and a "rock star," the documentary is far from fluff. Like any good doc, RBG is a portrait demonstrating the importance of why someone like Ginsburg is such a celebrated figure.

The film could have gone more into Ginsburg’s cult fandom online, especially given the source of its title. RBG isn’t a substantially historical film, lacking in non-personal expert voices outside of Knizhnik and Carmon (biographers Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams appear in very brief moments). Ginsburg’s significance as a hero, particularly for women, is obvious from her life story and her momentous strides. But the memetic iconography of the justice that’s paired with her worship is another animal, and in some ways is more interesting than the truth -- though the pop culture folklore material can certainly use a straight doc like this to better inform and balance against the reductionist idolatry.

RBG is a timely piece: Closing the gender pay gap is a major fight right now, making her dissenting opinion in the 2007 case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., worth revisiting (which the film does). The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, as they elevate women’s voices, definitely fit with Ginsburg’s record as a champion of feminist causes.

And, yes, the concern about her being the oldest justice on the Supreme Court during the presidency of a man she notoriously, "ill-advisedly" publicly chided does permeate throughout. For those who are worried, though, just watch her workout routine to find comfort in the promise of her already long, accomplished life to go on with no end in sight.

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Christopher Campbell is a freelance film editor and critic and the founder of the documentary review site Nonfics. Follow him for opinions of all sorts of movies @thefilmcynic.