In a summer movie season full of spectacular blockbusters about brawny superheroes, one of the big screen’s most popular crusaders is an 85-year-old Brooklyn native who barely eclipses the five-foot mark.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, is as formidable as any member of the Avengers. RBG, the new documentary from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, even features a scene of Ginsburg working out with her trainer, Bryant Johnson.
This sequence of healthy exercise is significant. For many liberally-minded Americans, Ginsburg’s fate matters a great deal more than Captain America’s.
“People love the idea of this tiny, little, soft-spoken woman who, without raising her voice… really speaks truth to power and writes these dissents that seem to resonate with part of the population,” Cohen tells The CJN.
RBG has already had the biggest documentary début of 2018 in the United States. It opens in select Canadian cinemas on Friday, May 18.
The film marks West’s first directing effort and Cohen’s fifth documentary feature. Both women had spoken with Ginsburg for previous projects: the documentary The Sturgeon Queens for Cohen, a multi-platform initiative about trailblazing women called MAKERS that West executive-produced.
Over the past five years, Ginsburg’s popularity has reached a fever pitch. Her high-profile dissents in 2013 and 2014 helped lead to the dissemination of a “Notorious RBG” persona online.
RBG is full of hilarious Ginsburg memorabilia, and the end credits even recognize the work of several meme creators. Naturally, West and Cohen decided it was the right time to unearth the justice’s pre-meme history and share her career of fighting for women’s rights with a broader audience.
“The #MeToo and Time’s Up movement make her story particularly resonant,” West adds.
The documentary chronicles Ginsburg’s life, including her college years, when she was one of just nine women in her class of around 500 at Harvard Law School. Before that, while studying at Cornell University, she met her husband Martin, who she recalls was “the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain.”
Despite her success at university – she worked on the prestigious Harvard Law Review while raising a one-year-old daughter – Ginsburg faced gender discrimination after graduating. As a woman, it was not easy to find work at a New York firm in the early 1960s.
She ended up researching, writing, and teaching a course on women and the law at Rutgers University. Coinciding with the rise of second-wave feminism, this class helped to push Ginsburg toward advocating for cases involving sex discrimination.
In the documentary, West and Cohen return to many of Ginsburg’s iconic cases when she was an attorney, including six argued before the Supreme Court. In their interview time with her, the filmmakers asked Ginsburg to recite some of these historic passages.
“Her memory is unbelievable, particularly for law-related issues,” Cohen says.
“We were having her re-read her oral arguments before the court from the 1970s. In some cases, we had cut out a phrase or a sentence here and there because we knew we were going to be editing it down. She always noticed that. Then she would insert the three or four words that had actually been included [in the historical record].”
Unlike a more traditional biography, RBG bounces between moments from Ginsburg’s life before and after her nomination to the Supreme Court.
Film editor Carla Gutierrez proposed that the filmmakers use her 1993 confirmation hearing, in front of some familiar U.S. senators, as a centrepiece. President Bill Clinton, who appointed her, was also interviewed for the film.
“This is a woman who has had many decades of important public life,” West says, “and we wanted to keep them all in mind throughout this story.”
RBG isn’t even the only film on this subject to come out this year. The biopic On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones as a 1970s-era Ginsburg and directed by Mimi Leder (The Leftovers), is due in cinemas this November – and reportedly contains a cameo from Ginsburg.
Cohen and West say they are interested in making another film that chronicles the life and times of a ground-breaking woman, although they are coy about which courageous figure (or figures) they have in mind.
“It’s a shame that these stories haven’t been told before,” West says of these unsung histories. “Yet, it’s an opportunity for storytellers and filmmakers to find their stories.