RBG: Doc Captures Brilliant Ruth Bader Ginsburg in All Her Feminist Glory

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B+

A conventional documentary about an extraordinary woman, RBG traces the life and career of Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the archetypal advocate who changed the system from within. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg... yeah, she's kind of awesome.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg... yeah, she's kind of awesome.

Julie Cohen and Betsy West's mix of archival biography and talking heads is lightly celebratory while effectively establishing why Ginsburg is so important. Before she became a T-shirt graphic (a.k.a. “the Notorious RBG”), Saturday Night Live character and Tumbler meme, this serious and carefully spoken woman dedicated countless late nights and several decades of her life to establish a set of case law challenging widespread gender inequality, modelled on civil rights legislation.

Biographical details are filled in: at 18, she met her beloved husband of 56 years, Marty Ginsburg (a likeable card and devoted supporter of his wife’s intellectual pursuits).  She entered Harvard, one of nine women out of 500, finishing in the top 25 despite juggling studies and a baby, switched to Columbia when her husband's career moved to New York but, upon graduation — even as a lawyer — couldn't land a job.  After a period of teaching law, she took on her first Supreme Court case in 1973 (representing the ACLU) of a female Air Force lieutenant who was not granted the same living allowance rights as her male colleagues. 
From there, the dominoes started to tumble.

Apart from a few unattributed audio clips about how Ginsburg is a “witch” and “dangerous,” there’s no real critical dialectic here.  The few conservative representatives shown (the late Antonin Scalia, Orin Hatch) are grudgingly adoring, while the Team Ginsburg side includes Gloria Steinem, two sets of Ginsburg biographers, and several scenes of starry-eyed students listening to her public addresses. 

The judge herself comes across as an endearing klutz, slyly funny, intense in her enthusiasms (opera) and hilariously dismissive about things she considers a waste of time (TV, fan mail).  To its credit, the film offers a canny presentation of Ginsburg’s precise use of language, as her addresses are printed on the screen while we hear audio of her them aloud. Yet whenever the camera cuts away to another talking head, I found myself jealous, wanting to spend more time with the formidable subject and less with her beamish fans.

RBG. Directed and written by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. With Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Opens May 18 in Toronto and Vancouver, May 25 in Montreal, and throughout the spring/summer in other cities.