Movie review: “RBG”

Brad Keefe

“As much as people admire her, they don't know the half of it.”

This statement, which falls near the beginning of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary “RBG,” will prove true to most over the 90-plus minutes that follow.

The diminutive Supreme Court justice seems an unlikely cultural rock star, but this story of a tireless warrior for gender equality makes for an ideal Mother's Day gift.

Well, obviously there's a certain political segment of the audience for this movie, made clear in an opening montage featuring fevered critiques from conservative white men in which Ginsburg is called, among other things, “this witch, this evildoer, this monster.”

Or my personal favorite: “She's a zombie.”

After an energizing opening sequence set to Dessa's “The Bullpen” (side plug: do yourself a favor and go see Dessa at A&R Bar on July 1), we settle into a fairly straightforward and chronological telling of Ginsburg's life.

The film begins with her early years in Brooklyn and touches briefly on the influence of her mother, who died when Ginsburg was just 17. “My mother told me to be a lady,” Ginsburg recalls. “And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.”

Then it's a stark depiction of the gendered landscape Ginsburg entered, a world of law schools and firms that were nearly all male, a world that would guide her mission in the decades to come.

It was at Cornell University where she met her eventual husband, Martin, who has played a lifelong support role. “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain,” Ginsburg says.

A trip through Ginsburg's career in presenting cases of the unequal treatment of Americans by gender is eye-opening, both in how far we've come and how genius her tactics were in making courts that were mostly white and male understand the perspective of those being denied equal rights.

“I did see myself as a kindergarten teacher in those days,” Ginsburg says.

While “RBG,” directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, is almost procedural in its telling, it's also given weight by an obvious timeliness.

That Ginsburg, a Bill Clinton appointee to the Supreme Court, was confirmed by a Senate vote of 96-3 seems remarkable in this time, as does the indication that she was once closer to the center of the ideological makeup of the court.

Personal interviews with Ginsburg, and particularly her granddaughter, cast a warm glow on the movie, even in an age where the voice of dissent is so vitally important.


Opens Friday

4 stars out of 5