Just in time for Mother’s Day, the much-awaited RBG documentary will be showing at 150 theaters around the country this weekend, a number that will double a week later.
But this fun, poignant and informative movie about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not just for mothers, and nor is it just for lawyers. Lawyers really ought to see it, but you can bring nonlawyer friends and family along, and you won’t have to quietly translate what’s going on to your seatmates.
This is a very accessible movie about the human and professional sides of an increasingly larger-than-life judicial icon, now 85. It gives equal attention to her childhood, her family life, her law school days, her groundbreaking advocacy for gender equality in the 1970s, her rock-star popularity and her time as a judge on the D.C. Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.
For millennials, Ginsburg’s struggle in a suffocating male-dominated legal world will bring home the gender discrimination she and other women experienced. And the movie details, without getting tedious, how Ginsburg as an ACLU lawyer carefully charted the strategy to break down that discrimination. Her central role in the legal battle for equality comes through vividly, and not everyone knows how important she was well before joining the high court.
Practice notes are embedded throughout the movie; she kept her eye on the goal of gender equality but took strategic, incremental steps to get there. The audio excerpts from her Supreme Court arguments are especially illuminating, highlighting her bold but polite statements about the impact of gender discrimination—including, wisely, in rare cases in which statutes discriminated against men, not women. (See Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, her successful 1975 challenge to a Social Security provision that gave fewer benefits to widowers than to widows.)
Ginsburg also knew what to do when justices and other lawyers showed how clueless they were about sex discrimination—such as the time in 1978 when Justice William Rehnquist asked her, “You won’t settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar?” Ginsburg sat down without a word. In the movie, Ginsburg said, “I saw myself as a kindergarten teacher” trying to get her listeners to understand the gender issue.
Is the movie a love fest for RBG fans? Sure, most of the time—although its historical detail makes it much more than that. And it unblinkingly chronicles Ginsburg’s missteps of 2016 when, in a series of interviews, she called out Donald Trump as a faker, among other things—comments, she later acknowledged, that should not be made by justices.
RBG, the movie, is not all fun and laughs. The love story between Ruth and her husband Marty runs through the narrative, with a tearful end. Martin Ginsburg died in 2010, and Justice Ginsburg was on the bench the next day. Her famous friendship with the late Antonin Scalia also ended sadly.
There are lighter moments. Ginsburg’s adult children Jane and James revealed they used to keep a “Mommy Laughed” book to chronicle detours from their mother’s usually serious nature.
And the movie itself proves Ginsburg can laugh. She was full of giggles when she watched the famous “Saturday Night Live” “Ginsburn” caricature of her. As her longtime friend and NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg put it, “She is such a rock star, and she is enjoying it.”