At one point in Betsy West’s and Julie Cohen’s new documentary “RBG,” NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg claims that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “was doing something that was incredibly important to American women.” At the end of “RBG,” I was still struggling to figure out what Totenberg meant when she said “something.”
The film is certainly detailed in its overview of Ginsburg’s life: it examines the years she spent at Cornell University, her graduation from Columbia Law School, the early cases she argued in front of the Supreme Court, her appointment to the bench and her legacy. Yet, Totenberg’s statement speaks to the film’s major shortcoming. The documentary seems more like a middle school book report than a tribute to a crusader for women’s rights. It includes basic facts, but it does not provide any insight into Ginsburg’s legal work, life or legacy.
West and Cohen certainly believe that Ginsburg is a significant figure, but the evidence they present is ultimately unconvincing. They discuss a case Ginsburg argued in front of the Supreme Court, Califano v. Goldfarb. Through this example, they seek to show that Ginsburg played a monumental role in advancing women’s rights. Therefore, they include a quote from Ginsburg’s oral argument. “The point is that the discriminatory line almost inevitably hurts women.” While this statement is undoubtedly true, any feminist from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Betty Friedan could have written it. Perhaps a more thorough examination of Ginsburg’s argument would have revealed what makes her views distinctive. West and Cohen, however, settle for this shallow sound bite.
Throughout the documentary, West and Cohen seem uninterested in undertaking a complex analysis of Ginsburg’s life and work. They interview people who worked with Ginsburg at different stages of her career. Her childhood friends, her associates at the ACLU, her fellow justices from the DC circuit Court of Appeals, and her family members are all given the chance to opine on her significance. Yet, they all give the same answer. They portray Ginsburg as a champion of liberal values and equal rights, but they don’t explain how she sought to promote these values and procure these rights.
The insights these interviewees provide into Ginsburg’s personal life are similarly perfunctory. Various interviewees mention that Ginsburg has a unique ability to cross the political aisle and work with justices who hold opposing views. As proof, they point to her longtime friendship with the late, very conservative justice Antonin Scalia. For many of the interviewees, this is nothing short of a miracle. One of the interviewees claims that Ginsburg is an extraordinary individual because most liberals “do not have friends who are right-wing nutcases.” If these interviewees are Ginsburg’s other friends, it’s understandable that she would want to spend more time with Scalia; at least he wasn’t constantly singing her praises. Ultimately, however, the fault lies not with the interviewees, but with West and Cohen. They should have pushed the interviewees to make more perceptive comments on Ginsburg.
In the last half of the documentary, West and Cohen turn their attention away from Ginsburg’s legal work and personal life and focus on her legacy. For West and Cohen, however, Ginsburg’s legacy is not embodied in the outstanding opinions she wrote or her compelling interpretations of the Constitution. Instead, it is manifested in the pop culture productions Ginsburg has inspired. While Ginsburg is certainly hip enough to be called the “Notorious RBG,” hasn’t she left more of a mark than just a meme? West and Cohen seem particularly enamored with Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of Ginsburg; they show the same SNL skit three times during the documentary. Towards the end of the film, West and Cohen screen the sketch for Justice Ginsburg herself, and they ask her what she thinks about it. Ginsburg finds McKinnon’s acting humorous, but concludes that the impersonation doesn’t reflect anything about her at all.
Ginsburg’s assessment of the sketch could be applied to West and Cohen’s documentary, with the caveat that the film is rarely entertaining. This is a shame, because Ginsburg is undeniably a notable figure in our nation’s politics. Her work is laudatory, but West and Cohen cannot explain why. They want to celebrate her forward-thinking positions without forcing their audience to think too much. The simple quotes, the identical interviews and the cursory examination of legacy all present a single idea about Ginsburg — that she is someone who has accomplished “something.” Yet, West and Cohen’s approach really does injustice to this respected justice.