That her initials “RBG” are widely enough known to serve as the title of a documentary says plenty about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, she’s the first justice ever to become a pop-culture phenomenon — celebrated in books, tagged with the rap-derived nickname “Notorious RBG” and regularly impersonated on “Saturday Night Live” by Kate McKinnon.
The pop-culture embrace, from the progressive side of the spectrum, has come as the result of the pint-sized justice’s searing dissents against the recent cascade of conservative court decisions, like the decimation of the Voting Rights Act.
But she’s also a litigator hero, arguing six sex-discrimination cases before the court and winning five.
And she made a breakthrough for female attorneys in the '50s, when she was one of a handful of women among hundreds of men in her Harvard Law class, then made the law review, then turned her rejection by New York’s law firms into a groundbreaking career as a law professor, litigator and, for the past 25 years, Supreme Court justice.
Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen cover all that in their comprehensive documentary. But there’s also a look at her relationship with Martin Ginsburg, whom she met as a 17-year-old student at Cornell University and married. The pair had a couple children, who are among the dozen or so talking heads that pop up through the film, as does one of her granddaughters.
Her late husband, a prominent tax attorney, supported Ruth from day one until he died in 2010. That relationship, in which the funny, easygoing Martin offset the serious Ruth, is pivotal in her life.
So how did the a serious, opera-loving jurist who can’t cook at all become a pop-culture icon, whose image wearing her white-lace-collared robe and big glasses is found on t-shirts, book covers, coffee cups and posters?
“RBG” answers that, in part, through the observations and recollections of Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, a pair of young law students who wrote the 2015 book “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” But it’s also seen through her rock-star appearances at colleges, high schools and speaking events.
“RBG” is done in conventional documentary form, utilizing archival footage and recordings of her arguments to the court and her reading of her dissent, following Ginsburg to some public appearances (including as a performer in an opera) and interviewing Gloria Steinem, Bill Clinton, Arthur Miller and Sen. Orrin Hatch, among others.
But the primary interview is of Ginsburg. Cut in with the other speakers and footage, it allows her to reflect on each of the film's topics that’s covered, from the writing of her decisions and the multiple collars she wears on her judicial robes, to watching McKinnon impersonate her for the first time.
“RBG" opens with audio snippets of right-wingers calling Ginsburg, among other things, a “demon.” It isn’t entirely laudatory, appropriately taking up the critique of her scathing attack on Donald Trump during the 2016 election — something no Supreme Court justice should ever do.
But, as Hatch intones, even Supreme Court justices are entitled to make mistakes. As “RBG” demonstrates, Ginsburg has made few in her 85 years; and in the process, she has become a living legend and indispensable progressive champion on the court.