How does a U.S. Supreme Court justice become a pop culture icon in her 80s? She writes impressively lyrical, liberal-leaning dissenting opinions of the Court’s conservative decisions.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has her face printed on t-shirts, socks, coffee mugs and bumper stickers. Some people have even gotten tattoos of her. And now, Ginsburg is the focus of the new documentary, “RBG.”
The film explores how Ginsburg consistently defied norms in the U.S. legal system, which was far more male-dominated than it is today. Thirty-six percent of people in legal professions are women today, according to the American Bar Association. In the film, Ginsburg discusses how the Dean of Harvard Law asked her and other female law students how they could justify taking the spot from a qualified man.
But as American Civil Liberties Union legal fellow and creator of “The Notorious R.B.G.” Tumblr account, Shana Knizhnik, says in the film, not many people know about Ginsburg’s personal life and long legal career. Viewers of “RBG” will leave the theater with a better understanding of the woman behind those scathing dissents.
Beginning with her days as a child in Brooklyn, New York, the film chronicles Ginsburg’s life. It shows her days as an undergraduate at Cornell University where she met her late husband, Martin Ginsburg. After she graduated from law school, firms in New York City would not hire her because she was a woman. But she was able to work as a professor at Columbia Law School, and that’s when her advocacy for women’s rights began. Her successes as an advocate for women’s rights would take her to the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg’s profoundly supportive relationship with her husband becomes a focal point of the film early on.
“He was the first boy I knew who cared that I had a brain,” Ginsburg said about the early days of her relationship with Martin.
Martin, a successful tax lawyer in New York, did not hesitate to have Ginsburg’s career take priority, which is uncommon even by today’s standards. While she was pushing boundaries out in the legal world, he was breaking ground at home by taking care of their two children.
“My wife doesn’t give me any advice about cooking and I don’t give her any advice about the law,” Martin Ginsburg said during a previously recorded interview that’s featured in the film.
The film’s original interviews with Ginsburg reveal sides of her the public rarely sees such as her delightfully unsophisticated sense of humor.
At one point, the film’s interviewers show Ginsburg a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update clip from February 2017 in which Kate McKinnon plays an exceptionally flamboyant version of Ginsburg. Her adult children, Jane and James, joke that she’s out of touch with her own pop culture references because she doesn’t know how to turn on her TV.
“It’s marvelously funny,” Ginsburg said as she watched the clip and cracked up laughing.
Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen use interviews with Ginsburg’s friends, family and colleagues to tell her story. Other interviews with women’s rights activists such as Gloria Steinem and politicians such as former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah broaden the intimate perspective of Ginsburg that the film provides.
“I knew I was going to name her within fifteen minutes,” Clinton said about his 1993 interview with Ginsburg for the Supreme Court seat. He says he was struck by how quickly the interview became a friendly conversation about how they could move the country forward through law.
Twice in the film, Ginsburg reads a quote from abolitionist Sarah Grimké that epitomizes her approach to life: “I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks.”
“RBG” is now playing at the Bijou Art Cinemas theater on East 13th Avenue in Eugene. Student tickets are $7 with a valid student ID.