Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinam
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Ginsberg is indeed a remarkable person
It does seem like a watershed; the world pre, and post, Trump. The brute fact of his being in the White House means that every American documentary seems to have an elephant in the room. Whether it is just a momentary aberration, or the harbinger of a dangerous, global, anti-democratic lurch towards ‘strong leaders’ and authoritarian populism is too early to tell. However, this peon to the liberal supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg does end with this conundrum. Now, more than ever, we need the checks and balances to come into play. In the last few years she has consistently had to be a dissenter on the Supreme Court decisions as more and more regressive laws are adjudicated upon.
Ginsberg is indeed a remarkable person. She is a tiny Jewish lady with a great legal mind who trailblazed all her life to get more gender balance into the male dominated world. Today, at 85, she is something of a national treasure for liberals in America and nerdy female law graduates have even made social media memes and tee-shirts featuring her. In a nod to the rap generation they have dubbed her ‘Notorious RBG’, an epithet she finds highly amusing. The film gives us a potted life history as well as interview footage with the redoubtable Associate Justice of the Supreme Court herself, but it is a pretty straightforwardly told. She was born in 1933 in Brooklyn. Her mother was strict but kind.
Ginsberg tells us that she instilled two values in her: to be a ‘lady’ (i.e. to be temperate and treat people with equanimity) and to be of independent mind. This, and her marriage to the highly understanding and fully supportive partner, Marty carried her far. It is a portrait of a marriage as well as of her life and times. She admits that Marty was unusual among men of his generation in putting his career second and moving home to facilitate hers. He also learned to cook, thereby relieving her of this inessential skill. As her grown up children jokingly testify, their mum is still a terrible cook.
The film doesn’t need to do very much to trick up its subject and nor are there any skeletons in the cupboard. Once Ginsberg got to an Ivy League law school her ferocious work ethic and her sharp mind did the rest. In an era when women were still discriminated against in statutes as well as in social practice the principle that all citizens should be equal under the law gave her a lifelong orientation. Test case by test case she set about dismantling legal barriers to gender (and other) inequalities.
The problem for the film is not just that the narrative only runs in one direction, it is more that few seem to have a bad word to say about her. This is partly about the choices of the filmmakers, of course. Apart from some contemporary Alt-right sound bites in the opening sequence nothing else balances the hagiography. A collage of historical stills and lots of talking heads later, we come to the inevitable conclusion that Ginsberg set a lot of things to right. It is saved somewhat by the fact that she is a sprightly and nimble interviewee. Even there, though, she is too politic and circumspect to really dump on the dinosaurs that opposed her along the way.
As mentioned, we come right up to the Trump era. She did come out and speak publicly against the prospect of Trump coming to power (and was chastised for doing so) but it took something as egregious as that election to get her to do so. For decades she far preferred to win her battles with stealth and reason.