Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West make clear in its title the editorial perspective of this biographical documentary. The acronym RBG, a nod to the late combative rap legend Notorious B.I.G., suggests the filmmakers view Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the pop cultural icon she has become over the last 15 of her 85 years, the subject of internet memes, SNL impersonations, bobbleheads, t-shirts, and other merchandise (many featuring the justice's head grafted to Wonder Woman's body).. This is Ginsburg the Dissenter, the "notorious" voice of liberal dissent to the decisions of our highest court's increasingly conservative majority.
The film uses that notoriety as a jumping-off point, opening with audio of detractors labeling Ginsburg "a disgrace to the court," "a vile human being," even "a monster."
Except for a late mention of Ginsburg's roundly-rebuked public criticism of then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump, however, “RBG” generally steers clear of controversy (or criticism), instead celebrating its subject's career-long crusade for gender equality.
The directors have constructed the film around footage of Ginsburg delivering a brief autobiography as part of her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing and find a lifelong theme for her career and personal life in advice she received at a young age from her mother: to be a lady and to be independent, which Ginsburg explains she interpreted as meaning to avoid wasting energy on distracting emotions such as anger and resentment, and to be able to fend for herself (.i.e., without depending on a man to survive).
What unfolds over the following hour and a half outlines little more than the highlights of Ginsburg's career, yet even these basic facts are impressive. In a series of interviews, childhood friends, relatives and colleagues describe Ginsburg as a young woman indefatigable in her pursuit of excellence in the field of law despite numerous obstacles, some the product of circumstance, others the result of systemic gender bias.
As a student at Harvard Law School in the Fifties (one of nine women in a class of 500), she was also caring for her husband Marty as he battled (successfully) cancer, taking notes for the classes he was missing, typing up his class papers as he dictated them, raising a year-old baby, and completing her own classwork so successfully that she became the first woman named to the “Harvard Law Review.”
Unable to find work in New York upon graduation (most firms would not deign to even interview a woman, despite glowing recommendations from classmates), Ginsburg joined the ACLU's Women's Rights Project and, as General Counsel, argued a series of successful gender equality cases before the Supreme Court. While the filmmakers deserve credit for attempting to emphasize the power of Ginsburg's arguments by featuring key passages on screen as she intones the words, the film moves at such a pace that there is little time to reflect on the influence of these cases. Ginsburg, herself, reflecting on these years, unironically compares her patient, diplomatic delivery of basic principles of equality before an all-male Supreme Court bench to being “a kindergarten teacher" because the justices just "didn’t get gender laws."
The film touches on the dynamic between Ginsburg and late husband Marty, a successful lawyer in his own right who stepped aside to support her ambitions. Also apparent in interviews with her adult daughter Jane, with whom the justice seems to have a close relationship, is a degree of ambivalence about that ambition (asked to describe the justice as a mother, Jane simply replies, "Exigent").
Interestingly, one begins to get a clearer sense of the justice's personality as she shows off her collection (a closet-full) of jabots (the decorative collars she is known for wearing in court), including the "dissent jabot," made of stylish black velvet with gold and silver studs, and the "majority opinion jabot," a gift from her clerks, crocheted in tones of gold, brown, and yellow.
Despite a parade of talking heads, including Orin Hatch, who acknowledges a grudging admiration, and longtime friend and fellow opera-lover, the late uber-conservative justice Antonin Scalia, the film is most revealing when it lets its retiring subject speak for herself, something at which she has always excelled.