They call her Notorious RBG. She’s 84 years-old and was one of only nine women at Harvard Law School in the 1950s. Kate McKinnon does a broad impression of her where she drops “Gins-burns” like a borscht belt comedian. Her name is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a new documentary, “RBG” from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, details her ground breaking career from working for women’s rights in the 1970s to becoming only the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States to her unlikely status as a pop culture fixture in the 2000s. They call her Notorious RBG for a reason.
Despite an opening audio montage courtesy of Ginsburg’s detractors “RBG” is here to praise the judge, not bury her. A combination of archival footage, talking heads (including her personal friend but ideological foe Antonin Scalia) and interviews with Ginsburg herself form the backbone of the doc. We learn of her upbringing, the bond with her husband Marty (“The first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain.”) who launch the campaign that landed her on the Supreme Court, her love of opera and her illustrious career. “The law is something I deal with well,” she says.
Despite not being able to find a job when she graduated top of her class in 1959 she ultimately became a leading light of second wave feminism in court, challenging gender biases in all facets of her life. “I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days,” she says of arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court in the 1970s, “because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” Her work, then and now, led Gloria Steinem to call her “the closest thing to a superhero I know.”
Her continued influence, in pop culture and in court, is remarkable for anyone, let alone someone in her eighties. “Who is more disdained or told to go away,” says “Notorious RBG” author Irin Carmon, “than an older woman?”
“RBG” is a spirited look at an icon. Like so many docs about living people it is a tad on the starstruck side but it also works as an entertaining glimpse into an extraordinary, newsworthy life.