Review: ‘RBG’ shows the heart, mind of a woman warrior

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“RBG,” the new documentary that follows the groundbreaking life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is many things.

It is a tracking of the rise of feminism and women’s rights. It is the story of a steely attorney’s determination to update the legal world. It tells the tale of a quiet and primly proper woman excelling in a loud and often ugly world. And, perhaps most surprisingly, it is a love story.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in “RBG.”

It does not have a happy ending, though. At least not yet.

Ginsburg, who began her career on the Supreme Court as something of a center-left moderate, has been pushed by a series of conservative appointments to become the voice of dissent as the court tilts to the far right. This has made her an obvious hero to the left, earning her the nickname The Notorious RBG, but it has also meant a series of defeats.

At age 85, and with (theoretically) more than two years left of the current presidency, she is both a fragile and determined bulwark of liberal thought. That she would end up in this position likely never occurred to the Brooklyn-born daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, at least early on.

But it was obvious Joan Ruth Bader was driven. She first went to Cornell — which was then known as a good school for girls to find husbands — in 1950, and she did indeed find a husband, although she doesn’t seem to have been particularly searching for one.

The gregarious Martin Ginsburg was 18, she was 17. They were together until he died in 2010 and his unwavering support — he became a well-respected tax attorney — and obvious adoration of her gives the film great heart.

But the reason for the film is obviously her legal career. Despite sterling academic credentials, because she was a woman, no law office would hire her after graduating law school, so she taught law. Then, in 1972, as the women’s rights movement gained steam, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

She would go on to argue six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five, when the court was all male. Each case incrementally moved women’s rights forward. And then, in 1993, she was appointed to the court.

Her history is told by old friends, home movies, her two kids and a parade of legal luminaries. There is also ample footage of RBG herself in interviews taped specifically for the film (watching her giggle while being shown Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on “Saturday Night Live” is priceless).

It is an impressive film and an impressive life. But it leaves one wondering what Justice Ginsburg feels now as the erosion of much that she accomplished is underway even as the #MeToo movement gains momentum. One thing’s for sure: She’s still standing. May she stay strong.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.



Rated PG for some thematic elements and language

Running time: 98 minutes