Nugget of Ruth

A doco on the US Supreme Court’s cel­e­brated lib­eral doesn’t ques­tion her in­ef­fec­tive­ness.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - IN CIN­E­MAS NOW RBG di­rected by Julie Co­hen and Betsy West

Call Ruth Bader Gins­burg what you want. A “lib­eral hero”, per­haps, or maybe a “zom­bie”, a “witch”, an “evil­doer”. The por­trait that emerges in RBG, a dot­ing doc­u­men­tary of Gins­burg’s life, is of a qui­etly de­ter­mined woman whose tiny size and shy de­meanour be­lie a ti­tanic in­flu­ence on US life as a pas­sion­ate lit­i­ga­tor for gen­der equal­ity. As an As­so­ciate Jus­tice of the Supreme Court since 1993, how­ever, that in­flu­ence has turned to im­po­tence, an un­com­fort­able truth this ac­count ac­tively evades.

RBG’s most in­sight­ful and in­spir­ing de­tails come early, in Gins­burg’s rad­i­cal days. Born in 1933 to Rus­sian-Jewish im­mi­grant par­ents, she bat­tled her way through Har­vard as one of only nine women in a class of 500 men while rais­ing a daugh­ter. In the 1970s, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Pro­ject with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, ar­gu­ing be­fore the Supreme Court for equal pay and equal rights six times. To the di­nosaurs on the court, she had to ex­plain the ba­sic op­er­a­tion of pa­tri­archy, weav­ing her ar­gu­ments as if “knit­ting a sweater”, one strand at a time, or scold­ing them like a “kinder­garten teacher”. She lost only one case.

Skip­ping en­tirely over Gins­burg’s 13 years as an ap­pel­late judge, RBG heads straight for her place­ment in the high­est ju­di­cial body in the land. And what goes un­men­tioned, to the film’s detri­ment, is the Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety’s ef­forts to pump ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive judges onto the court. Gins­burg’s abil­ity to sway opin­ions was neutered by a right-wing stonewall. In cru­cial cases such as the 2000 elec­tion-de­cid­ing Bush v Gore and this year’s refugee-re­strict­ing Trump v Hawaii, Gins­burg could only is­sue limp dis­sents.

As if in com­pen­sa­tion for the sti­fling of a bril­liant mind, RBG gives us a flashy mon­tage of icky mil­len­nial kitsch, prais­ing Gins­burg’s new­found sta­tus as a pop-cul­ture icon: her “No­to­ri­ous RBG” nick­name – a riff on rap­per No­to­ri­ous BIG; an im­per­son­ation on Sat­ur­day Night Live; a bunch of te­dious in­ter­net memes; and some in­con­gru­ous se­quences of an 85-year-old Gins­burg at the gym pump­ing iron in a “Su­per Diva!” sweat­shirt, as if some­how we all need re­as­sur­ing that she’s still got some fight left.

Mil­len­nial kitsch: Ruth Bader Gins­burg.

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