In New RBG Documentary, ‘Celebrifying’ Justice Ginsburg


When Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s father was a young boy in Odessa, he discovered that because he was a Jew he would be unable to continue his education, Jews being barred from the schools under the czar. So, like many thousands of others, he came to America in search of self-betterment and freedom. He couldn’t have had an inkling that his daughter would not only receive the education of which he dreamed, and at the highest imaginable academic levels, but that she would one day become a lawyer, a law professor, a federal judge and, finally, one of the nine most important judges in the land.

Everyone loves an American-Dream-success story like Justice Ginsburg’s, and rightly so. As she herself has said on many occasions, for “a Brooklynite born-and-bred” to change the face of American jurisprudence and reach the pinnacle of her profession “could only happen in America.” As a powerful voice for gender equality before the law and an eloquent defender of basic human and civil rights, Ginsburg is worthy of the approbation she has received, particularly in recent years.

That is, in part, one of the central messages of the new documentary, “RBG,” which opens on May 4. As a precis of her career and achievements, the film, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, is a sound, competent piece of work, well-rounded and often witty. As you might expect from two long-time veterans of television documentary, “RBG” is brisk but thorough, balancing the public and private sides of Ginsburg’s career and attempting to give some insight into the forces that drive her obsession with her work.

Fine, as far as it goes, and for the most part, the film is entertaining and informative.

But coming as it does from CNN’s film unit, and striving to be both serious and “fun,” “RBG” falls into the relatively new trap of — for lack of a better word — “celebrifying” the news, reducing public discourse of the most serious sort to a catalog of memes, sound bites and cute images.

Without meaning to, West and Cohen furthered the process by which Justice Ginsburg has been turned into a cute Jewish granny who is an inspiration for T-shirts, coffee cups and rather dreadful rap songs. That isn’t, I think, what they intended, but it is the inevitable result of the direction in which mass media have shoved the discussion of issues these days.

Ginsburg’s story is profoundly compelling. Her beloved mother died when she was about to graduate from high school. She excelled as a student at Cornell, meeting her husband Martin there as well. She went on to Harvard Law School at a time when women made up 2 percent of the student body and were treated with open hostility. She became editor of the Law Review, a position reserved for only the very highest-achieving students. And she managed that feat while raising a newborn child and nursing her husband, who had been diagnosed with a particularly pernicious form of cancer.  She would eventually graduate from Columbia Law in 1959 and would go on to teach “Gender and Law” at Rutgers Law School, a course she created virtually from scratch.

Ginsburg’s intense commitment to a gender-blind justice system would lead her to argue before the Supreme Court with a remarkable success rate (five victories in six cases), and her work would contribute mightily to recasting the map of American jurisprudence to the gain of both women and men. One of the great strengths of “RBG” is its thoughtful examination of her key cases as an advocate, with useful contributions from her former clients.

Eventually, Ginsburg came to the attention of the power centers in Washington and she was appointed to the D.C. federal bench and then, against the odds considering her advanced age (60) to the Supreme Court. She has shone on the high court, first as a center-left judge within the Rehnquist Court, and then as a more vocal and progressive dissenter and force on the right-leaning Roberts Court. In the course of time, she developed an unlikely but warm friendship with Antonin Scalia, perhaps the most conservative associate justice, and gradually turned into a very public icon.

As one of her younger friends and supporters notes, “She’s been such a rock star and she loves it.” Is Ginsburg the only Supreme Court jurist to be regularly and affectionately lampooned on “Saturday Night Live”? To be regaled as a hip-hop star, the Notorious R.B.G.? Undoubtedly.

And there is nothing particularly wrong with that. As a role model for women in a society in which gender roles are being questioned constantly, as a role-model for older Americans, a cancer survivor and gym rat, Ginsburg is exemplary. You could argue, convincingly, that anything that draws attention to her many virtues is a positive. Regrettably, although the filmmakers offer some very tentative explanations for the sudden attention being paid to her, they seem unable to explain it, which makes their frequent return to the trappings of celebrity all the more irksome.

One cannot help but harbor a nagging suspicion that without all the extra-legal celebrity that has accrued to Justice Ginsburg, this film might not have been made. After all, if CNN honcho Jeff Zucker hadn’t turned a middling real estate mogul and relentless self-promotor into a “reality” television star, there might be a different occupant of the Oval Office. The notion that history can hinge on such nonsense is disturbing enough that it may color an audience’s reaction to “RBG,” despite the very real accomplishments of its protagonist.

“RBG,” directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, opens Friday, May 4 at the Landmark 57 West, the Angelika Film Center and the Alamo Drafthouse Theater (Brooklyn).