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May 24, 2019

An Icon for the Ages

RBG is a memorable portrayal of a history-making intergenerational icon

By: 
Hillary Atkin


The Notorious RBG. It's safe to say that no other justice of the United States Supreme Court has entered into the cultural conversation the way Ruth Bader Ginsburg has.

The life story of only the second woman ever appointed to the high court was lovingly, and sometimes humorously chronicled in the feature documentary RBG from filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen and co-produced by Storyville Films and CNN Films.

The 97-minute film aired on CNN last year after a theatrical run that grossed $14.4 million at the box office.

Although it would have been of high interest at any time during recent years, the documentary comes as the now 86-year old Ginsburg is riding a wave of pop culture popularity. Her likeness graces everything from T-shirts to tote bags to bobblehead dolls to socks, pillowcases and pins – and that's just for starters.

She's been the subject of a number of books including 2018's best-selling My Own Words, which excerpts her writings and public comments on a number of topics including gender equality and interpreting the United States Constitution.

Most indelibly, she has been joyfully spoofed on Saturday Night Live a number of times by cast member Kate McKinnon.

Ginsburg was also portrayed by actress Felicity Jones in last year's On the Basis of Sex, which portrayed the triumphs – and the struggles --of her early years as a Harvard and Columbia law school student and then as a young attorney, wife and mother alongside her beloved and supportive husband Martin.

Naturally, it is the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself who is the star of RBG. The film opens with a montage of conservative pundits demonizing the liberal-leaning Ginsburg as a "witch," a "monster" and a "zombie," contrasting with a later scene in which she's shown wearing a navy blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Super Diva" as she works out with free weights.

Admirers of the soft-spoken, petite jurist may have been unaware of her personal journey until they saw the revelatory documentary. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018 and opened theatrically in May before its television airing.

Ruth Joan Bader was born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. She grew up in a low-income, working-class neighborhood as the second daughter of Nathan and Celia Bader, who imparted to her the values of independence and a good education.

Ginsburg excelled at her studies and graduated first in her class at Cornell University with a bachelors degree in government studies in 1954, the same year she married Martin Ginsburg. Soon thereafter, they were both students at Harvard – and new parents of daughter Jane, who is a pivotal part of the documentary and sheds new light on her mother's philosophy and achievements.

RBG also features interviews with Ginsburg's son James and her granddaughter Clara Spera.

Adding additional insight is 42nd president of the United States Bill Clinton, who appointed Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993 making her only the second woman – after Sandra Day O'Connor – to don a black robe and sit on the nation's highest court.

Also featured are women's rights activist Gloria Steinem, NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary committee during Ginsburg's confirmation hearings and her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson.

Ginsburg allowed West and Cohen to shoot her work-out sessions, which are some of the most candid and enjoyable moments of the documentary.

The filmmakers say they first had the idea of doing the doc in January 2015, before Ginsburg had fully broken out as the octogenarian rock star now known worldwide as RBG, and often as "The Notorious RBG," a play on rap star Biggie Small's nickname, The Notorious B.I.G.

Both women had separately interviewed Justice Ginsburg previously in their roles as journalists and in their early conversations about the film, they talked about how she was "having her moment." They said they didn't fully understand then how that moment would blow up into something much bigger and more important as they documented her extraordinary life.

Filming began in June 2016, as the crew tried to keep up with Ginsburg's hectic schedule.

"We filmed her in her office, on vacation with her family and working out with her personal trainer," the directors said in a statement.

"We also began tracking down the dramatic stories of the clients she represented as a young lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court in the 1970s. At that time, it was perfectly legal to discriminate on the basis of sex. RBG's brilliant legal strategy resulted in five groundbreaking rulings that made great strides towards putting women and men on an equal footing before the law."

As the production continued, a seminal movement against sexual assault, misconduct, harassment and discrimination in the workplace – issues close to Ginsburg's heart - took shape after a series of investigative reports about producer Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men in the entertainment industry rocked the nation.

"We took to heart Justice Ginsburg's approach to sexism and adversity," Cohen and West said in their statement. "When, after graduating at the top of her law school class, she could not get a job, she remembered her mother's advice: anger is a waste of time. Eventually, she was able to use her formidable legal skills to fight for justice for women--a fight she has continued through five decades."

Her list of important victories for gender equality goes back to 1971's Reed v Reed, a landmark women's rights case. Ginsburg and her team convinced the Supreme Court to strike down an Idaho law stating that "males must be preferred to females" as the administrators of estates.

In the 2017 case Sessions v Morales-Santana, Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority high court opinion declaring unconstitutional part of the Immigration and Nationality Act regarding citizenship for children born overseas to unmarried parents when one was a U.S. citizen and the other wasn't. She wrote that the distinction between men and women in the law "is stunningly anachronistic."

As a woman who stood nearly alone as she began to blaze a dazzling path for equality, it's only appropriate that the theme song for RBG is called "I'll Fight." Performed by Grammy and Oscar-winning artist Jennifer Hudson and written by acclaimed songwriter Diane Warren, the lyrics include a rousing chorus:

I'll fight, fight that war for you
I'll fight, stand and defend you
Take your side, take your side, take your side
That's what I'm here to do
(I'll be there to be strong) I'll be there, I'll be strong
Oh I'll keep on, keep on the fight
I'll fight, I'll fight

For its portrayal of a woman who fought gender injustice from the beginning of her career and rose to the absolute highest ranks of her profession while holding steadfast to her personal values, RBG is a worthy recipient of one of the 2019 Television Academy Honors.


For the award presentation and acceptance video, click here.

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