December 9, 2018

‘RBG’ Tells Remarkable Story of Justice Ginsburg

Her childhood friends call her Kiki. To her grandchildren, she’s Bubbe. And among social media-immersed millennials, she’s achieved pop icon status as the Notorious RBG. But most people know Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Justice Ginsburg, the venerable liberal voice and first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court of the United States.

In their enlightening documentary “RBG,” filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen highlight the many accomplishments of Ginsburg’s illustrious legal career and her work as a lifelong defender of civil rights and equality for women, while revealing the often-surprising details of her personal life.

“We want people to learn more about her history, but we also want them to see her as a human being, and we think that comes through in this film,” Cohen said when she and West met with the Journal.

Among the revelations: Ginsburg is a night owl, a terrible cook, is passionate about the opera and has quite the collection of fancy white collars to wear with her black robes. The 85-year-old justice works out regularly with a trainer, lifting weights and doing planks and pushups while wearing a “Super Diva” sweatshirt.

Ginsburg’s exercise regimen is “a great symbol of the determination she has shown throughout her life,” West said. “Whenever she’s met a challenge, she attacks it headlong and figures out a way. Her challenge as an older woman is to keep herself in shape to do the job that she loves.”

It took West and Cohen two years to secure the justice’s participation, but once she was on board, they were granted access to Ginsburg in the gym, at home, in her office and at public appearances and social occasions. In the end, they had 100 hours of archival audio and video, home movies, and newly shot interview footage with Ginsburg, her associates, friends, family members and notables, including Gloria Steinem and Bill Clinton, who nominated Ginsburg for the Supreme Court during his presidency.

“The idea of a quiet little Jewish grandma as a rock star is a little ridiculous and crazy. The unexpectedness is a big part of it.” — Julie Cohen

The filmmakers included never-before-seen footage of Ginsburg and her late husband, Marty, who was her greatest champion, and video clips of her with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The two justices “had interests in the law and opera in common, and on the basis of IQ, they were kindred spirits even though their positions were different on legal issues,” Cohen said. Scalia and Marty had something in common, West noted: “They made her laugh.”

In “RBG,” Ginsburg is seen cracking up while watching Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of her in a clip from “Saturday Night Live.”

“She’s a serious, reserved person who does have a sense of humor,” Cohen said. “She can have fun at her own expense.”

Ginsburg was also quite amused by the internet-fueled Notorious RBG phenomenon, which went viral because “people were galvanized by her words, her ideas and by her speaking truth to power by these powerful dissents that she issued. It just happened organically,” West said. “It mushroomed because people loved it. [The idea of] a quiet little Jewish grandma as a rock star is a little ridiculous and crazy,” Cohen added. “The unexpectedness is a big part of it.”

“RBG” traces Ginsburg’s roots to her childhood in New York, as the only child of Russian-Jewish immigrants. “She grew up in Manhattan, but her parents were from the tenements of the Lower East Side and they would bring her there to show her where they’d worked so hard to leave,” Cohen said. “Her story is a Jewish story. She’s from immigrant stock, and education was everything. Her family wanted her to succeed in the professional world and she took that to heart. The fact that she was a girl didn’t stand in the way.”

Cohen added that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity “means a lot to her, and it’s grown stronger in recent years. She speaks at temples and at JCCs frequently. She’s a great role model for Jewish women.” A Jewish New Yorker herself, Cohen said she “can relate to [Ginsburg’s] ambitions and aspirations. I see the reflection of my own family in her.”

“RBG” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where Ginsburg saw it for the first time.

“We had the great experience of sitting across the aisle from her and were able to watch her watching it. She was extremely engaged in the film,” Cohen said. At the post-screening Q&A session, the justice “said she had high expectations and they were exceeded,” West added. “We were speechless.”

Ginsburg, who battled cancer twice, in 1999 and 2009, appears to be in good health now and “keeps up a very vigorous travel schedule. She has a lot of energy,” West said.

The film’s theatrical release will be followed by its debut on CNN and streaming services this fall.

“I hope the audience gets an appreciation for the role she’s played in American history, from fighting for and winning rights for women as a young lawyer in the 1970s to her scathing dissents as a Supreme Court justice,” West said.

“I also hope they get some insight into her strategy, how she figured out how to appeal to the male justices and make them understand that discrimination actually exists,” she added. “You may admire the notorious RBG, but there’s probably a lot you don’t know about her. There’s so much more to her surprising, romantic and inspiring story, and that’s the story we wanted to tell.”

“RBG” opens May 4 at the Laemmle Music Hall and Town Center 5 theaters.