There’s a Saturday Night Live sketch that I think about a lot. It was released in 2018, which was more or less at the height of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pop cultural domination. In it, performers Pete Davidson and Chris Redd rap about the (liberal) public’s adulation for the equal rights pioneer as Kate McKinnon, clad in the judge’s trademark glasses, tight bun and black robe, flexes behind them. At the end, Redd asks Davidson to say his favorite Ginsburg decision. His answer? “I don’t know.”
And there’s the rub. Despite all the bobbleheads, T-shirts, The Notorious B.I.G.-inspired memes and nicknames—she is colloquially referred to as The Notorious RBG, or simply RBG—a lot of her fans may not actually be able to name any of the landmark cases she argued or, once she became a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and then was appointed to the Supreme Court under President Bill Clinton in 1993, her groundbreaking rulings. Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words, director Freida Lee Mock’s latest documentary, attempts to give fans some options.
The 89-minute film has its share of talking heads who explain the importance of Ginsburg, who died in September 2020 while still serving as an associate justice on the highest court in the land. But where it really shines is through its use of archival footage that—as its title suggests—allows Ginsburg to speak for herself in an attempt to answer its own thesis: “How does a person with three strikes against her rise to the highest court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court?” (Ginsburg believed she was unemployable at the start of her career because she was married, Jewish and a mother to a young daughter).
The film opens with Ginsburg’s oft-quoted 1979 remarks where she stands, hair pulled back in a low ponytail with a blue scarf while her thick hoop earrings shimmer, talking about how she excelled in law school but that, after graduation, “not a single law firm in the whole city of New York” would hire her because “of my sex.”
“Institutions—gate keepers—shut the door to women and those doors have been open very recently,” Ginsburg remarked then, when she was in the midst of spending a career pushing them open.
Most RBG fans know that speech. They also know about her seemingly bizarre friendship with noted late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (which is discussed in the film). But they might also enjoy hearing her in work mode. Through audio and visual aids, as well as animated renditions of courtroom drawings, Mock’s story recreates some of Ginsburg’s own arguments and shows the pattern of how she systematically broke down gender bias laws by going after the ones that deprived men.
As a practicing attorney, Ginsberg argued six cases in front of the Supreme Court, winning five of them. Some were more absurd than others: The film discusses 1976’s Craig v. Boren, which was sometimes referred to as the “thirsty boys” case and fought an Oklahoma statute that allowed 18-year-old women to buy alcohol but made men wait until they were 21. There were also the tragedies, like 1975’s Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, where a widower whose wife died in childbirth had to fight for the social security benefits that would have been awarded to a widow. Ruth also gets into its subject’s infamously spirited dissents once she became a SCOTUS jurist, such as the 2007 equal pay case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co..
The announcement of Ginsburg’s death came as myself and other Jewish people were gathering to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish new year. I will never forget the tears stinging in my eyes as I pulled the traditional dessert of an apple pie out of the oven. So I can tell you that hearing Ginsburg’s determination and stoicism in Mock’s documentary was cathartic. But I also worry that, for all its good intentions, the film might deify its subject too much.
An opening scene involves Ginsburg’s senate confirmation hearing for her appointment to the Supreme Court, focusing on then-Ohio senator Howard Metzenbaum’s question of whether “the right to choose is a fundamental constitutional right.” As Ruth composer Lili Haydn’s music builds at a pulse, Mock shows that Ginsburg fought hard to argue that abortion rights “are the right of a woman guaranteed by the 14th amendment” and doubled down that her own belief on the issue didn’t matter.
Whether this directing and editing decision was made because of lack of footage available or so as not to anger any anti-abortion advocates watching the film, it avoids the fact that Ginsburg did provide a stance on the matter during that inquisition. “This is something central to a woman’s life, to her dignity. It’s a decision that she must make for herself,” she would tell Colorado senator Hank Brown.
It’s also unavoidable to compare Ruth to directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary, RBG. That film interviewed some of the same sources and looked at a couple of the same cases. But it also had the luxury of scoring sit-downs with more recognizable talking heads like Clinton and women’s rights pioneer Gloria Steinem—not to mention Ginsburg herself. It also discussed her potentially more questionable decisions, such as speaking out against then-presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in 2016, calling him a “faker” and making other comments that a judge who is officially supposed to appear non-partisan would not normally say in public or on the record. (Later, an elected President Trump would, of course, not honor Ginsburg’s deathbed request to not fill her seat on the bench until “a new president is installed.” Conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett now holds Ginsburg’s seat).
But Ruth director Mock has a history of championing the ones wronged or forgotten. Her 2013 film Anita: Speaking Truth to Power reminded us that some of the same senators who questioned Ginsburg during her Supreme Court hearing did attorney Anita Hill dirty during SCOTUS judge Clarence Thomas’ hearing. And she is an executive producer of the recent The Donut King, director Alice Gu’s film about Los Angeles-area donut owner Ted Ngoy. So, after one of the toughest years that many people will ever experience and with debates raging on about how much the pandemic has ruined any progress for women in the workplace, it’s still nice to spend roughly ninety minutes watching how a tiny woman from Brooklyn helped break down obstacles for us bit by bit.
Director: Freida Lee Mock
Starring: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Goodwin Liu, Erwin Chemerinsky, Irin Carmon, Shana Knizhnik, Jennifer Carroll Foy, M.E. Freeman, Lilly Ledbetter, Kathleen Peratis
Release Date: February 12, 2021 (virtual cinemas); March 1, 2021 (Starz); March 9, 2021 (VOD)
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.