Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to many in the United Kingdom at least, will be a well known figure but perhaps less well understood. In broad strokes she is known to be a liberal US Supreme Court Justice, but her influence upon the laws of the United States is probably less apparent. Although this new documentary – from co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen – proves frustratingly superficial in understanding her career on the Supreme Court bench, for most of its running time it is an informative and inspiring documentary about a legal titan.
The film presents interviews with Ginsburg herself, as well as current and former colleagues. Figures around her life and career are also interviewed, presented along with audio of sessions in Supreme Court sessions, which (in)famously not allowing cameras while in session.
The various aspects of Ginsburg’s legal history are laid out, and the result does not preach to the converted as might be expected, even if it is singing from the same hymnbook. There is certainly little done to convince opponents that Ginsburg is on the correct side of history, but her understanding of the legal challenges and ability to construct an argument are made very clear. Interviews with those who were plaintiffs in her landmark cases, or even opponents, make clear Ginsburg is not just an accomplished legal wonk (although it is made patently obvious she is), but one that has made a real tangible difference to the day-to-day lives of Americans.
The filmmakers’ justifiable admiration for Ginsburg is clear, perhaps to the detriment of getting inside the mind of its subject rather than merely celebrating it. Her status as pop cultural figure feels very forced, juxtaposing her against Biggie Smalls seems a bit of a patronising and reductive memification; the joke seemingly lies in this literally small woman exuding a supposedly unexpected toughness through her verbiage. Further, the quiet strategising of a sharp-minded woman stated as being averse to direct action is at odds with the wider movement that co-opts her image. Not mentioned here, her comments on Colin Kaepernick (and later statement she should have declined to address it) echo this; a fuller understanding of Ginsburg shows she doesn’t fit neatly into the partisan boxes of contemporary political discourse.
With that in mind, it is disappointing more isn’t made of her friendship with the late Antonin Scalia. Scalia, seen as the arch-conservative villain of the 21st-century SCOTUS, would often deliver hair-raisingly homophobic and racist phrasing in support of his constitutional originalism. The fact Ginsburg could maintain a cordial and warm friendship with him could be a shining example in a polarised political climate, but little is done to show this beyond the superficial amusement of it.
In a similar vein, her comments about Donald Trump being a ‘faker’ (which she later apologised for) are not interesting, nor is the patronising hypothesis from Helen Alvaré that it was a result of Ginsburg misunderstanding her role. RBG addresses the comments briefly, but the more interesting inquiry would be why she originally felt compelled to comment at all. At the time, Trump was certainly not the first idiot or narcissist to run for President.
Having said all this, with a remarkable career behind her that is rightly celebrated it is fair that her public impression of, and relationships with, odious men should not dominate this particular record (as opposed to her supportive husband Martin, who is well documented here). It is just unfortunate that lack of analysis drains the film of some historical staying power.
For those less familiar with her career, the initial outline of her life towards the Supreme Court bench is compelling and interesting. Taking a less reverential approach to Ginsburg is not required to elevate RBG as a film, but a more analytical mindset to her career since reaching the summit perhaps is. Although disappointing in that regard, RBG rightly celebrates the career and skills of someone who is shown to have had a profound impact on the laws of her homeland.