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Documentary RBG glazes over some awkward truths about the liberal hero

A doco on the US Supreme Court’s celebrated liberal, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, doesn’t question her ineffectiveness.

Call Ruth Bader Ginsburg what you want. A “liberal hero”, perhaps, or maybe a “zombie”, a “witch”, an “evildoer”. The portrait that emerges in RBG, a doting documentary of Ginsburg’s life, is of a quietly determined woman whose tiny size and shy demeanour belie a titanic influence on US life as a passionate litigator for gender equality. As an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court since 1993, however, that influence has turned to impotence, an uncomfortable truth this account actively evades.

RBG’s most insightful and inspiring details come early, in Ginsburg’s radical days. Born in 1933 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, she battled her way through Harvard as one of only nine women in a class of 500 men while raising a daughter. In the 1970s, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project with the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing before the Supreme Court for equal pay and equal rights six times. To the dinosaurs on the court, she had to explain the basic operation of patriarchy, weaving her arguments as if “knitting a sweater”, one strand at a time, or scolding them like a “kindergarten teacher”. She lost only one case.

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Skipping entirely over Ginsburg’s 13 years as an appellate judge, RBG heads straight for her placement in the highest judicial body in the land. And what goes unmentioned, to the film’s detriment, is the Federalist Society’s efforts to pump ultraconservative judges onto the court. Ginsburg’s ability to sway opinions was neutered by a right-wing stonewall. In crucial cases such as the 2000 election-deciding Bush v Gore and this year’s refugee-restricting Trump v Hawaii, Ginsburg could only issue limp dissents.

As if in compensation for the stifling of a brilliant mind, RBG gives us a flashy montage of icky millennial kitsch, praising Ginsburg’s newfound status as a pop-culture icon: her “Notorious RBG” nickname – a riff on rapper Notorious BIG; an impersonation on Saturday Night Live; a bunch of tedious internet memes; and some incongruous sequences of an 85-year-old Ginsburg at the gym pumping iron in a “Super Diva!” sweatshirt, as if somehow we all need reassuring that she’s still got some fight left.



Video: Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.