RBG: A breezy primer on Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Review: Betsy West and Julie Cohen make a fond portrait of the US Supreme Court judge

RBG: the US Supreme Court judge works out in a Super Diva sweatshirt
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Director: Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Cert: PG
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Ginsburg, James Steven Ginsburg, Nina Totenberg, Clara Spera, Gloria Steinem
Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins

There are a few moments of levity in this fond documentary portrait of the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the United States Supreme Court judge. She works out wearing a sweatshirt that reads “Super Diva”, banters with the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia, and is bemused by her nickname, the Notorious RBG. Its inspiration, Biggie Smalls, she notes approvingly, was another Brooklynite.

Mostly, as she herself notes, Ginsburg is a far more solemn, serious person than her place in pop culture might suggest. "I tend to be rather sober," she says. Friends agree. Even at her most fun-loving, one would never confuse Ginsburg with Kate McKinnon's hipster impersonation from Saturday Night Live. It does make the real thing laugh, though.

A quarter of a century after she joined the court, excerpts from Ginsburg’s United States Senate confirmation hearing provide a biographical framework. Born in New York to Russian immigrants, she was encouraged to work hard, to “care about people” and to be independent. She enrolled at Harvard Law School before transferring to Columbia University. She tied for first in her graduating class, in 1959, but while her husband, Martin, embarked on a successful career as a tax attorney, no firm would hire her.

During the 1970s, as head of the women's-rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union, she devised a strategy to expand constitutional protections against gender discrimination, on a case-by-case basis. She advocated for both women and men, including a single father who was denied social-security benefits normally paid only to single mothers (a case that forms the spine of the incoming biopic On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones).


Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s carefully curated film invites the notable feminists Nina Totenberg and Gloria Steinem to speak to Ginsburg’s legacy. A collage of angry conservative voices – “This witch, this evil-doer!” – provide an unconvincing counterargument. A documentary that was as sober as its subject might have spent more time on the fascinating archival audio from some of the cases Ginsburg argued, but this breezy primer is hard to argue with.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic