‘RBG’ Is an Inspiring Portrait of Trailblazing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court, is now the subject of an inspirational new documentary, “RBG.” Long a liberal and feminist icon, Ginsburg, now 85, has not only become a beacon of hope during the current presidential administration, but also something of a mythical figure, inspiring a Tumblr page, merchandise featuring her likeness, and even a bombastic Kate McKinnon character (“That’s a Gins-burn!”) on SNL, the latter being more of an homage than an impression. The real RBG is much more soft-spoken and subtle, as we see here in this doc, in which filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West trace Ginsburg’s journey from her childhood in Brooklyn to present day, showcasing the quiet determination that eventually led her to D.C. In addition to interviews with her colleagues, members of her family, friends, admirers, and even a few former adversaries, we hear from Ginsburg herself. As a young girl, her mother told her to strive to be not just a lady, but also an independent woman, and here we see how she took these words to heart with spectacular result.

Driven from a young age, Ginsburg first attended Cornell University. Numerous interviewees comment upon her disdain for chit chat, even avoiding “girl talk” with her female friends, her studies, and later her work, being her top priority, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t know how to have fun. Her first semester at Cornell in 1950, a school where men outnumbered women 4-1, she joked that she never had a repeat date, but that all changed when she met her future husband Martin “Marty” Ginsburg. With fondness, she recalls how he was the first boy to appreciate her brains as well as her beauty. Even after after achieving success by the standards of the day, getting married and having a child, Ginsburg became one of only nine women to matriculate into Harvard Law School in the fall of 1956. To say Ginsburg makes “having it all” look easy would be quite the understatement. She credits her daughter, Jane, with helping her keep her sanity during these earlier years. She has help from a baby-sitter, though it’s never revealed how she and her husband, also a Harvard law student, were able to afford this luxury.

They say well-behaved women seldom make history, but Cohen and West make the case that Ginsburg is a rare exception. Forced to the sidelines while her husband and male former classmates landed jobs at big NYC firms, she took to teaching law around the time the women’s movement began to take hold. Just like Gloria Steinem, who is amongst the interviwees here, she worked tirelessly for gender inequality, but not by demonstrating in the streets or speaking at rallies, but in the courtroom, case by case. Work-obsessed to the point that her husband had to often personally fetch her from work before she starved herself, we learn that Ginsburg’s one major indulgence is her love of opera, the perfect soundtrack for the story of her slow and steady rise to the highest court in the land. Also impressive is her ability to charm those who could have easily been her enemies, including Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (another interview subject), and more impressively, her late colleague Justice Antonin Scalia, an archconservative with whom she carried on a warm friendship for several years, and the video and photo evidence of this bipartisan relationship is a heartening reminder of what is possible when those on different sides of the aisle are able to look at each other’s humanity, a message that is now more important than ever.

But the heart of “RBG” is Ginsburg’s relationship with Marty, who we see here as having been her biggest champion. Long before it was accepted in society, Marty threw his full support his wife’s professional endeavors, eventually letting his own career taking a backseat. With Marty having passed away from cancer in 2010, it is evident that the loss is still with her, along with the strength that pushes her forward. In one particularly uplifting scene, Ginsburg is shown working out in a siort with the word “Diva” printed on it. When asked about retirement, she replies that she will keep going at full steam as long as she is able, a warm assurance to her supporters.

RBG” opens May 4 in select theaters.