Film review: RBG

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By Adam Mawardi on

An intimate portrait of the US’ answer to Lady Hale

? RBG film poster

Above all, RBG reinforces the saying, ‘respect your elders’. The documentary film plays like a greatest hits to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court justice who’s spent her legal career strongly advocating for gender equality and women’s rights — leaving viewers in awe and admiration.

Using a collection of interviews, public appearances and archival material, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West map out the context surrounding Ginsburg’s legal activism. For example, at Harvard Law School, Ginsburg recalls that she, and the other eight female students in her class, were asked by the dean why their place should not have been offered to a man instead.

Similarly, Ginsburg, who studied at both Harvard and Columbia Law School, struggled to find a US law firm willing to hire a woman. By illustrating her exposure to sex discrimination, her endeavours for equal citizenship are presented as a natural progression — with Ginsburg fully vested in propelling women forward in society.

What follows is a highlights reel of Ginsburg’s legal career, spanning her time as the general counsel for American Civil Liberties Union, her seat on the US Court of Appeals DC Circuit and finally as the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

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Legally minded viewers may appreciate scenes where snippets of famous Ginsburg oral arguments are projected against an empty courtroom — presented one word at a time. A striking example is when Ginsburg quoted women’s suffragette Sarah Grimké before an all-male judiciary, stating:

“I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Where this film really succeeds, however, is in revealing an intimate insight into Ginsburg’s personal life. At the heart of this film is a love story, documenting her marriage to New York tax lawyer Martin Ginsburg, who passed away in 2010. Viewers learn of their unwavering devotion to one another. For instance, when they were both at Harvard, Ginsburg cared for their child and her husband, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer, all the while taking class notes for both of them and typing her husband’s dictated assignments.

Alongside being a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg is presented as a pop-cultural phenomenon — a role the 85-year-old fully embraces. It quickly becomes stark that ‘The Notorious RBG’, as she is often called, serves as a key inspiration for, among others, young aspiring female lawyers. Commenting on her feelings towards the nickname and her comparison to rapper legend ‘The Notorious BIG’, she cheekily responds: “Why would I feel uncomfortable? We have a lot in common.”

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