Movie Review – RBG
After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, filling his vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court became the source of controversy. Senator Mitch McConnell blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland but fast-tracked the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch in 2017. All of that has put the federal court in the press, which might have helped fuel the success of this documentary when it hit theaters in May 2018. What also might have fueled this movie’s success is when, in June, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, which meant another vacancy to fill. Currently, Brett Kavanaugh is undergoing confirmation hearings to take Kennedy’s seat and the controversy around him is also heavy in the news, which makes this movie one of the most relevant movies of the year.
The movie is also relevant given that we’re coming upon the one-year anniversary of the #MeToo and Time’s Up Movements, which are mainly about sexual harassment and sexual assault, but that has also been about the unfair or unequal treatment of women in the workplace. When it comes to women’s rights and gender equality, this movie documents one of the most notable champions in that arena, that of the second woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Not simply is this movie a biography of her life, it is a step by step breakdown or run-through of the legal cases that Ginsburg argued and decided, which have had direct effect on women’s rights and gender equality.
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West interviewed Ginsburg herself for this movie and got glimpses into her home life and fun activities. Ginsburg might be an octogenarian but she is still very sharp and very active. The look into her early life, especially back into her years in law school, demonstrates a strong work ethic, buttressed by a very supportive husband, but at times she had to carry the load for both herself and her spouse, while also balancing motherhood.
The movie then lists a handful of the cases she argued before the Supreme Court. She won five of her six cases in front of the highest jury in the land. The movie briefly talks about what each case was and how Ginsburg used it to knock down gender discrimination and further equality. When possible, Cohen and West also interview the subject or the plaintiffs of those specific cases. Of course, due to time, the movie can’t delve too deeply into the specifics of each specific case, nor do we hear the arguments for both sides in totality.
Audio from Ginsburg’s arguments are heard in brief. I suppose that because she won, we don’t need to hear her counter-arguments. However, later when she’s appointed to the Supreme Court, we see that she takes on the minority opinion, but the movie never delves into the counter-arguments there either. The point is simply to show how a more moderate court has begun to swing politically to the right or more Republican and there is this push for her to remain and be that dissenting opinion for liberals and feminists wanting her there to fight for them.
However, given how in love with the law Ginsburg is, it’s a shame that the movie isn’t as in love with the law. The movie simply wants to be in love with Ginsburg as a person as most hagiography is. It does a brief sequence to show how she was friends with Scalia. We’re meant to delight that the two went to the opera together or rode an elephant together, but without delving into Scalia’s opinions and how they clashed with Ginsburg, that brief sequence feels like a hollow one.
If this film doesn’t get an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature, then its end-credits track, “I’ll Fight” by Diane Warren and performed by Jennifer Hudson, might get nominated for Best Original Song. Hopefully, coming out of the movie, there are two quotes that people will keep in mind. The first is, “The gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal but in a cage.” The second is, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” These are two quotes that Ginsburg repeats and they’re pretty powerful.
Rated PG for language and thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 37 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD.