RBG: The Notorious

by Gracie Bucklew

Last Saturday afternoon in the Prestige Room of Ark Lodge Cinemas, I fell in love with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. RBG, the documentary on the notorious Supreme Court Justice, is beautifully personal and loving and surprisingly romantic. From her endearing yet fierce workout sessions to her numerous yet necessary dissents in court, Ginsburg proved to be a terrifically engaging and relatable documentary subject.

One aspect of the documentary I didn’t anticipate was the focus on Ginsburg’s relationship with her husband Martin Ginsburg. This romantic theme strung throughout the film was adorable. Even though I am sick of watching straight love stories on the big screen, I wasn’t annoyed by this one. I think part of the reason I wasn’t is because it is such a healthier and more mutually-supportive relationship than most portrayed in popular films. Martin’s unwavering advocacy for his wife in the face of blatant sexism and willingness to move for her career and cook for the kids (given RBG’s formidable kitchen skills) – traditionally wifely roles – characterize a much more ideal movie husband than we are usually offered. Interestingly, the documentary focused on this part of Ginsburg’s life while seemingly ignoring another.

While debriefing the film with one of my moms, she commented: “She’s [Ruth Bader Ginsburg] a Jewish hero.” I naively replied: “She’s Jewish?”

Clearly, the film did not highlight this part of Ginsburg’s identity at all. I recall hearing the word “Jewish” once in the entire film and I think it was referring to Martin Ginsburg. Maybe RBG’s Jewish identity is not important to her or a big part of her life and that’s why it was not a greater presence in the film, but it still seems fishy to me. This erasure is reminiscent of the new Freddie Mercury documentary in which the creators reportedly largely ignore Mercury’s bi-ness and AIDS – two well-known parts of his life.

The only mention of RBG’s Jewish ancestry I recall is indirect and in passing: “I am … a first generation American on my father’s side, barely second generation on my mother’s. Neither of my parents had the means to attend college, but both taught me to love learning, to care about people, and to work hard for whatever I wanted or believed in. What has become of me could only happen in America.” This quote was included in the documentary, and in researching it afterward, I learned there was a sentence from the original quote cut out (as my friend Sarita and I recall). The full quote includes the following sentence just before the final sentence: “Their parents had the foresight to leave the old country, where Jewish ancestry and faith meant exposure to pogroms and denigration of one’s human worth.” This seems a deliberate omission of Ginsburg’s Jewish heritage.

Why did the filmmakers choose to cut out this part of the quote? Why did they consider it less important or relevant to the film than the rest of the quote? Did RBG okay this omission? If I am actually misremembering and this part of the quote was included, why can’t I remember it? Is it a fault of mine or of the filmmakers?

And even if the documentary, in fact, did highlight RBG’s Jewish identity more than I recall, the fact that I, a regular ol’ viewer, who was even paying extra close attention knowing I’d write a review on it later, could exit that theater not realizing a core identity of the subject of the documentary I just watched is questionable. How could that happen if it wasn’t at least a little bit subconsciously or consciously on purpose? I know that no viewer would be able to exit a documentary about me oblivious to my Unitarian Universalist faith if I had anything to do with it. So why could I for RBG? Although it had its shortcomings here, RBG succeeded on other fronts.

In addition to RBG’s representation of a woman on screen, the film has breakthrough representation of women off-screen. Co-producers/directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, cinematographer Claudia Raschke, film editor Carla Gutierrez, associate producer Nadine Natour, and associate editor Grace Mendenhall – all women – made this film happen. Considering that just under a third of the top 250 films in 2017 employed zero or only one woman in key behind-the-scenes roles, this representation is remarkable. Overall, women constituted only 18% of all directors, cinematographers, editors, producers, executive producers, and writers in 2017’s top 250 films. This measly percentage is virtually unchanged from that of 1998. In 20 years, we have progressed so little.

And in taking into account race, the representation worsens. RBG’s white female directors, while notable, are much more common than female directors of color. Of the last decade’s 1,223 directors of the top 1,100 films, only eight were women of color: four Black women, three Asian women, and one Latinx woman. This disproportionality is staggering and in no way limited to the movie industry.

Ginsburg’s Latinx peer, Sonia Sotomayor, is the only female justice of color to ever serve on the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was only the second woman to be appointed a Supreme Court justice, the first Jewish woman, and one of four women ever appointed out of the 112 total justices in over 200 years.

RBG covers this history through the life story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s an entertaining and heartfelt overview of Ginsburg’s life before the court, her early days serving, up until now with her meme notoriety.

RBG is be showing at Ark Lodge Cinemas until June 7.

Gracie Bucklew is a musician, artist, Unitarian Universalist, intersectional feminist, and activist and contributes a regular local pop-culture column to the Emerald. She is currently a student at The Center School. She lives on Beacon Hill with one of her moms, and is a lifelong resident of Rainier Beach with her other mom. She loves her friends, cats, and ice cream.