Not often in the history of our Government has there appeared a figure like Ruth Bader Ginsburg—or the Notorious RBG as she was deemed by the internet while skyrocketing to “cultural icon” status in the last decade. At the height of this notoriety came the Oscar-nominated documentary RBG, followed by the drama ON THE BASIS OF SEX, and now from director Freida Lee Mock we have RUTH: JUSTICE GINSBURG IN HER OWN WORDS, which offers a telling of the life and career of the famed judge through her own voice.
While Julie Cohen & Betsy West’s acclaimed documentary focused on RBG as an icon, this film differs from its predecessor in its more grounded attitude. Using excerpts from various speeches, interviews, and lectures she gave during her life, Ginsburg’s story as it appears on screen is a well-mixed blend of personal life and career. Through an address on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment she gave at Columbia Law School to an intimate meeting she had as a sitting Supreme Court Justice with a class of elementary school students, the film allows Justice Ginsburg to have the final word on her own narrative.
The body of this documentary takes us through some of the most important moments of Ginsburg’s life and the adversity that accompanied each chapter. From her childhood in Brooklyn where her Jewish upbringing generated discrimination, to her graduation from Harvard as one of the only females in her class, through her struggle to find a law firm that would hire her as a mother, and onto her Supreme Court confirmation hearing where she received scrutiny for her outspoken views. In a sense, you get the origin story that made Justice Ginsburg into the icon that she became, described through a stoic voice that saved its passion for her most important work.
Perhaps the most meaningful moments of the film come from descriptions of the professional relationships she had in her life. The first to come up is with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, with whom she deeply related despite her appointment by the other side of the political aisle. And of course, her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia is discussed at length—her “sparring partner” on the court, who comes up to epitomize her stance that “no matter how great our differences, on what the law is or ought to be, we know it will suffer if we can’t get on well with each other.”
And though Ginsburg, for the most part, keeps her personal life private, there are touching moments when we get a look into the relationship she had with her husband Marty, to whom she was married for 56 years. Though an odd couple, the two filled in each other’s differences and had a terrifically unique and inspiring partnership. There’s also a moment where we hear her proudly discuss her daughter, Jane, who became her colleague at Columbia—the two were the first mother-daughter pair ever to serve on the same law faculty in the United States. These chapters fill in the character of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and lets the documentary feel like a peek inside her personal diary.
But the heart of this film is where it diverges the most from its documentary predecessor; in the chapters that lead us away from Ruth’s life to let us meet specific people that were personally affected by her opinions and dissents on the court. Jennifer Carroll Foy, for instance, was among the first women to attend the Virginia Military Institute, which did not accept female students until the United States v. Virginia case in 1996. The filmmakers catch up with her during her 2017 campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates, and since this documentary was completed she has announced her campaign for Governor. If elected, she will be the first female Governor of Virginia and the first African American female governor elected in the United States.
There are far more people to meet in this film, and Mock uses these opportunities to illustrate those who were inspired by Ginsburg’s efforts and ideals. The reception and effects of her life’s work, alongside a voice that remained composed and serene, creates a melody on-screen that proves the power of action over commentary, and moreover, the significance of doing what is right.
As the film has been in production for the last few years, it unfortunately presents itself as if Justice Ginsburg were still with us today. It does give the documentary a greater sense of optimism, but has a notably sad moment in which her long-time trainer expresses how healthy she is. Even more to that point, it begins to conclude itself with a disappointed expression she gave in regard to the lack of collegiality in government today, a foreshadowing of the conflict her passing would incite in Government. But she leaves us with words to take to heart, in a clip from her confirmation hearing in which she expresses, “I would like to be thought of as someone who cares about people and does the best she can with the talent she has to make a contribution to a better world.” Words to live by indeed, no matter what we’re doing.
RUTH: JUSTICE GINSBURG IN HER OWN WORDS is now available in our Virtual Movie Palace, alongside OUR RIGHT TO GAZE: BLACK FILM IDENTITIES, a collection of short films from Black artists that commands viewers to broaden further our expectations for the ordinary. And because it’s on AgileLink, member benefits apply! Opening this Friday, be sure to check out THE FAN CONNECTION, and 17 BLOCKS from local filmmaker Davy Rothbart.
Have a great weekend!