Is RBG getting enough kale? That was the question, only partly in jest, that circulated back in early 2017 when President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The idea — for liberals, anyway — was that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had better stay healthy, or the court’s precarious balance would be lost.
Well, after watching “RBG,” an engrossing, entertaining and unabashedly adoring new documentary about the now-legendary justice — seemingly a full-fledged pop culture hero at this point — it starts to feel like maybe we’re the ones who need the kale.
Those who closely follow Ginsburg, now 85, may already know that she works out with a personal trainer, but here we see her actually doing a plank, for what seems like a full minute. Yes, she does pushups too. (Her friends quip that they can’t even do half a pushup — either half.)
It’s no wonder that the term “superhero” is applied to Ginsburg early in the film, by no less than Gloria Steinem. But in a way, that term doesn’t do the justice’s story justice.
Because superheroes come by their status magically. Ginsburg, we learn here, had to fight every inch of the way, with grit and tenacity and creativity and optimism and lots of all-nighters, over often stunningly difficult obstacles. The best parts of this film show us not how “cool” she is but how hard she worked, and how much she wanted what she got.
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West gained impressive access to their subject, with everything from intimate family photos and video to interviews with her children and granddaughter.
But we begin with her 1993 confirmation hearing, where she first presented herself to the nation, announcing: “I am a Brooklynite, born and bred, a first-generation American on my father’s side, barely second-generation on my mother’s.”
We then go back to examine her roots. Education was a huge priority in Ginsburg’s family; it was where she had her early successes, and a value she obviously passed on to her own children. (“Do your homework,” her daughter says when asked what her mother used to tell her. “Don’t disappoint us.”) We learn that the young Ruth Bader was quiet, polite, determined. “She didn’t do small talk,” says a friend.
Ruth Bader excelled at Cornell University, where she would meet the love of her life, Marty Ginsburg. The film provides ample proof that this was a truly unusual partnership, based on love and mutual respect as well as Marty’s willingness to give his wife’s career precedence over his. “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain,” Ginsburg says in the film.
Ginsburg went on to Harvard Law School, where she was one of nine women in a class of over 500.
Even then, the dean asked the women “why they took a seat that could have gone to a man.”
She made Law Review her second year, an accomplishment all the more incredible because she was simultaneously doing her own work, taking care of her baby in the afternoons, and doing her husband’s law school work for him at night because he was suffering from cancer.
She finished her studies at Columbia, and found that despite her accomplishments, no law firm would hire her.