Saturday 5 January 2019

You can't handle the Ruth: "RBG"

A surprise box-office hit in the US last year, the CNN-supported documentary RBG may be in need of a little extra selling over here, where the finer points of the American judicial system hardly promise a rousing Saturday night at the movies. Granted, the film could be approached, as several speakers seek to frame it in the opening moments, as the first of 2019's superhero tales: a portrait/unapologetic celebration of the left-leaning Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now well into her eighties, yet evidently as sharp as a tack, and perhaps more prominent than ever before, her image circulated on T-shirts and in Internet memes alike. Here is a standing (most often sitting) illustration of the changing face of American society over the past one hundred years: where it would presumably have been unthinkable that a woman would occupy a seat on the highest court in the land as the U.S. entered the twentieth century, that was exactly what happened as the country approached the year 2000 - and at her confirmation hearing in 1993, we see Ginsburg speaking of her hopes of one day seeing three or four women on Supreme Court duties. (Instead, we have Brett Kavanaugh, and clearly a ways to go.) You could, however, warm your hands and cockles on this woman's optimism, and this perhaps explains the film's appeal: as with last November's Won't You Be My Neighbour?, another crossover documentary hit in the US, RBG has become a flag for liberal-left viewers, exhausted by recent defeats and ongoing fights online and in real life, to rally around.

In some ways, RBG is a reminder of a simpler time: Bader Ginsburg attributes some of her success to a mom who made sure she "didn't spend too much time out jumping rope". Yet directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West are careful to reject false nostalgia, any suggestion that the past was rosier or easier than it was. When their subject graduated from Columbia law school at the turn of the 1960s, companies could still legally fire any female employee who became pregnant, and legislation was on the books that turned a blind eye to marital rape; Bader Ginsburg herself is very clear that the law is an ongoing process, subject to regular revision and the checks and balances that bolster any other branch of a functioning democracy. The bulk of the film consists of a valuable, accessible cataloguing of the judge's achievements, particularly in addressing gender-based discrimination. Cohen and West highlight how their subject was shrewd indeed in tying her cases to the growing run of successes in overturning race-based discrimination, and then in fighting for the rights of men to raise their children alone as well as those of women paid less than their male colleagues. (She was intersectional before it became a term.) If there is any difference between America Then and America Now, it may reside in the noise levels. Speaker after speaker testifies to the fact RBG is no firebrand, rather a woman who spoke calmly yet firmly to the point in hand, puncturing the typically male windbaggery with which the film opens. (The usual suspects - including, with eye-rolling inevitability, the present incumbent - calling the judge a monster, a traitor, and every other name under the sun.) "No small talk" is established as one of Bader Ginsburg's shibboleths, and we are invited to note she doesn't Tweet much: the old gal's got work to be getting on with.

It's assembled in the now-familiar manner of the 90-minute doc keeping one eye on future TV spots, mixing interviews with archive public-forum footage, and setting a string quartet to saw elegantly over the more poignant episodes. (Better them than the faux-spirational Diane Warren/Jennifer Hudson number vajazzled over the closing credits.) Had the film been scheduled for this year's Sundance rather than last year's, we would surely have heard more about Kavanaugh, and the rib-fracturing November fall that reminded us how, unlike those superheroes, Bader Ginsburg is very much mortal. (Cohen and West show her hitting the gym in a "Super Diva" T-shirt: we can but hope she stays on her feet for at least the next few years.) Still, one could argue it befits a film about the law to hold back on stylistic flourishes and instead prioritise first-person testimony, and that testimony accumulates appreciably. We emerge with a stronger sense of RBG's legacy - the laws rethought and rewritten, the lives improved or saved because of them - and of a personality that has demonstrated seriousness (the judge's children confess a journal they kept titled "Mommy Laughs" had only "parsimonious entries") and openmindedness in equal measure, which learnt how to weigh one side of an argument against the other before finding a viable way forwards. (A segment on Bader Ginsburg's relationship with the hardline conservative Antonin Scalia strikes you as pertinent indeed in this moment, and another cherishable takehome is the number of former adversaries lined up to sing the subject's praises with twinkles in their eyes.) The film arrives in the UK in the first week of the new year not as a softsoap, nor the gentle group hug it might have been, but with the girding resolution of a gavel on a desk or any other kick up the behind: a clarion call - both to lawmakers, and those of us bound by those laws - to get back on it.

RBG is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon and the BFI.

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