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Documentary directors tap into Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s charismatic wit and steely legal mind in ‘RBG’

Documentary directors tap into Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s charismatic wit and steely legal mind in ‘RBG’
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a scene from the documentary "RBG." (Magnolia Pictures)

One of the winningest moments in “RBG,” a documentary portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, encapsulates the charm that has helped to make the dynamic 85-year-old an unlikely celebrity.

In the scene, filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West surprise Ginsburg with a clip of comic actress Kate McKinnon doing her famous impersonation of the justice on “Saturday Night Live.” The moment came at the end of an interview session with Ginsburg, in what West calls a “hush-hush” formal room inside the court building, with several minders standing by.

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As McKinnon improvises an exaggerated dance move, the justice looks on with curiosity, then begins to laugh. Exuberantly. “We didn’t tell her we were going to show her ‘SNL,’” West said. “And her reaction is priceless … once she realized what it was.”

That juxtaposition of charismatic wit with the groundbreaking significance of Ginsburg’s career — especially in her fight against gender-based discrimination — makes “RBG” an entertaining, as well as enlightening, watch. The movie connected strongly at the box office this year. At last count, the Magnolia Pictures release had earned more than $14 million. The timing couldn’t have been better, as this paean to a feminist legal firebrand came to screens in a year of #MeToo debates and the bitterly contentious hearings to confirm Ginsburg’s newest colleague, Brett M. Kavanaugh.

“We hoped it would resonate, but it struck more of a nerve than we anticipated,” said Cohen, who first teamed up with West in 2015 to pursue the project, well before “the change in our political landscape,” as the latter filmmaker puts it.

Ginsburg, known for her intimidating demeanor and frilly collars, her critical dissents in ideologically loaded cases and her diminutive frame, had enjoyed an increasingly public profile for a member of the Supreme Court, on which she has now served for 25 years. She became a hit with a new generation of millennial law students, noted the filmmakers, who include in the film a montage of pop-culture iconography inspired by the justice: social media memes, coffee mugs and T-shirts that celebrate her as the “Notorious RBG,” a play on the name of 1990s rap star the Notorious B.I.G.

“The popularity surprised her at first,” Cohen said. “She’s not someone who uses social media. But she understands that it’s funny to see an 85-year-old woman as a pop icon, as a superhero, and she’s embraced that. She has picked up the ball and run with it.”

Despite that, the pair faced a challenge getting Ginsburg to talk to them, but won her blessing in moving forward with other interviews, gradually working up the ladder to their subject. “It was kind of a test,” said West, who noted that some of the film’s key scenes — including the humorous segments of Ginsburg working out with a personal trainer, and the justice’s sweet, funny interactions with her law student granddaughter — came through only near the end of the shoot.

The filmmakers wanted to avoid the trappings of a traditional biography. “This is not told chronologically,” West said. “We wanted to embrace Justice Ginsburg and her reputation and that she’s a vital 85-year-old, and find a way to go back and forth in time.” They lucked out with their editor, Carla Gutierrez, who combed through four days of footage from Ginsburg’s 1993 Senate confirmation hearings. Despite all the legalese, “She was presenting her life in a forthright way.” Those segments, at Gutierrez’s suggestion, became a very useful structuring device.

When they finally got the chance to talk with Ginsburg on camera, the filmmakers found their patience was indeed a virtue. “Justice Ginsburg is a shy person, and sober,” Cohen said. “But making a film about someone who is an introvert turned out to be very rewarding. You sometimes have to wait for the answer, but when you do, it’s definitely worth it.”

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