The spectacle of politics and how it fits, or doesn’t, into the nation’s culture. Subscribe to our newsletter here.
“RBG,” the documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, opens in theaters Friday.
If the thought of a nonfiction film about a quiet, 5-foot-1-inch constitutional scholar seems like it has the potential to be dry, don’t worry. Even before Ginsburg became only the second woman to serve on the high court, her place in American history was secure as an advocate for striking down gender discrimination, a rich topic filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen explore.
Ginsberg Film Shines Light on Justice’s Pop Culture Status, Workout Routine
There is also priceless footage of her workout routine, a very meta scene of her watching Kate McKinnon portray her on “Saturday Night Live,” revealing interviews with her family, and explanations of her famous friendship with her late conservative colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, as well as her own reflections, and delight, about becoming a pop culture meme.
Asked about the “Notorious RBG” iconography that links her to Biggie Smalls, the late hip-hop artist also known as “The Notorious B.I.G.,” Ginsburg replies dryly: “People ask me, don’t you feel uncomfortable, being with a name like Notorious B.I.G.? Why should I feel uncomfortable? We have a lot in common,” she said, noting they are both Brooklyn born and bred.
It’s not the only post-modern moment West and Cohen experienced as they made their movie. They discussed what it was like to put the project together, as well as watch Ginsburg’s reaction to it at the Sundance Film Festival, in the latest Political Theater Podcast.
Force of Nature
The documentary, and an upcoming biopic by Mimi Leder, “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her husband Marty, may help cement the justice’s icon status.
In Washington, she’s been part of the social fabric for decades, having first argued before the Supreme Court in the 1970s and then been appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. President Bill Clinton in 1993 appointed her to the high court, where she’s been ever since, in between speaking to students, attending the opera, and traveling the world with family and friends.
Her status as show-stopper was put on display during the 2016 State of the Union, as the justices made their way through Statuary Hall.
It was quiet as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer passed through. That changed when Ginsburg appeared.
“There she is!” someone from the crowd said as she entered the hall, followed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
This happened to be the year after another head-turning, or head-bobbing, moment at the president’s annual joint address to Congress.
In 2015, she nodded off, admitting later on that she’d had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner. In “RBG,” she expands on that moment, saying the speeches can be a little dull, and the justices, unlike members of Congress, don’t clap and stand up and down during the speech, which can help one stay awake.
What else? For a film just a little over 90 minutes, there’s a lot of history covered, both personal and public, including that kerfuffle between her and President Donald Trump during the campaign.
“She is a performer,” longtime Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg of NPR says in the film. Yep.