Capturing the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on film
Un documentaire captivant sur la doyenne de la Cour suprême américaine.
A 85 ans, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, l’une des neufs juges de la Cour Suprême des Etats-Unis, est devenue une véritable icône de la pop culture... et la plus féroce adversaire de Donald Trump. Un fascinant documentaire sur sa vie et son combat pour l’égalité des sexes sort ce mois-ci dans les salles. L’occasion de découvrir une figure de l’histoire américaine contemporaine, peu connue en France.
Asmall, fragile-looking woman with “Super Diva” stamped on her sweatshirt is stretched out over an exercise mat in the gym, her face locked in a rictus of concentration as she does 20 push-ups. “She is like a cyborg,” says her personal trainer. “And when I say cyborg, she is like a machine.”
2. At 85, having already survived bouts of colorectal and pancreatic cancer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the proverbial survivor. And she needs to be. There is a very great deal hanging on her continued longevity as the fourth liberal-leaning justice among the nine justices of the US supreme court.
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LAST LINE OF DEFENSE
3. As such she provides the last line of defense against the forces of darkness that are never far beneath the surface in American public life. Not least the current incumbent of the White House whom she famously denounced before his election as a “faker” (she later apologized). Should Ginsburg vacate her seat while the faker is still in office, she would give Donald Trump the golden opportunity to lock a conservative majority into the nation’s top court for at least a generation.
4. In the new documentary RBG, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen seek to answer the mystery of how such a quietly spoken and restrained person not exactly renowned for her effervescence morphed into a hipster icon likened to fellow-Brooklynite, the late rapper Biggie Smalls. “We were taken by this juxtaposition of this very tiny, soft-spoken 85-year-old grandmother being
tough, speaking truth to power and, yes, even doing planks and push-ups. The whole unusualness of that combination is what makes her a star,” Cohen told the Guardian.
5. The film-makers spent the best part of three years following Ginsburg around the country as she gave lectures and attended her beloved opera, as well as conducting interviews in her chambers in the supreme court. It was a daunting prospect at first. “Despite her small stature, Justice Ginsburg is a very intimidating person. We absolutely found it intimidating initially – there isn’t a lot of small talk,” West said.
25 YEARS ON THE SUPREME COURT
6. The film marks the 25th anniversary of Ginsburg’s nomination to the supreme court on 14 June 1993 and of her confirmation two months later with the astounding backing of 96 senators to three – a display of bipartisan support that seems unthinkable today. One aspect of her career the co-directors were particularly keen to explore, though, was the lesser-known story of her seismic work on women’s rights that consumed her long before she became a member of the highest court.
7. “She would have earned a place in history even had she not become a supreme court justice,” said West. “She changed the law of the land for American women, making sure the US constitution applied to men and women equally – that’s a tremendous legacy.” As the documentary relates, in the 1970s Ginsburg played a leading role as a legal warrior for women’s rights. She was to gender equality what her predecessor on the supreme court bench, Thurgood Marshall, was to race equality in the 1960s.
FIGHTING FOR GENDER EQUALITY
8. Ginsburg argued six gender equality cases on behalf of the ACLU in front of the supreme court justices – all nine at that time were male, and most of them oblivious to the visceral discrimination endured at that time by women in the workplace. Despite those prevailing prejudices, she turned them round and won five cases out of the six.
9. She did so forever with the same poise and style – politely, respectfully, but always forcefully – that has become her trademark. Ginsburg says in the film that she inherited her composure from her mother. “‘Never in anger,’ my mother told me. That would have been selfdefeating. I did see myself as a kind of kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” 10. For RBG, the issue of rampant sexism was not just a legal challenge, it was personal. She began to train in the law in the 1950s when the profession was considered by most (male) practitioners to be unsuitable for women. She was one of nine women in a class of more than 500 men at Harvard law school, where she was refused entry by the Lamont Library because of her gender. After graduating from Columbia University in 1959, not a single New York law firm would employ her. She was turned away by partnerships that today she employs to do research for her as a US supreme court justice.
11. Though they began filming RBG before the explosion of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement, the film-makers see their work as forming part of a wave of recognition of the extraordinary contributions made by exceptional women. “There’s a long history in this country of women’s stories being undertold, but now there’s understanding that we’ve only been paying serious attention to half of the population,” Cohen said.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993.
The members of the U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, D.C., June 2017.