Setting a Benchmark: Julie Cohen and Betsy West chronicle the life and career of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 'RBG'

Movies Features

It was a logical series of questions that first set co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen on their way toward filming their lively Magnolia Pictures-CNN Films documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG.

“When you’re documentary filmmakers, a good question to be asking is, ‘Should somebody be making a documentary about this?’” says Cohen. “And we asked, ‘Should somebody be making a documentary about Justice Ginsburg?’ And, question two: ‘Why shouldn’t it be us?’”

Few can deny that Justice Ginsburg—who fought for gender equality and argued (and won) several cases in front of the Supreme Court before she became the second woman ever to serve on the body—has had a remarkably accomplished career. But it’s her current standing as a pop-cultural sensation that aroused the filmmakers’ interest. Memes and tribute videos featuring “The Notorious RBG,” a play on the name of ’90s rapper “The Notorious B.I.G.,” can be found all over the Internet. Many quote Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions, the fiery, eloquent words that first inspired the social-media phenomenon. Some of the memes are silly (Beyoncé lyrics superimposed over a photo of the justice: “All them fives need to listen when a 10 is talking”), others vulgar (a Photoshopped image of Justice Ginsburg flipping the bird as the text heralds: “I DISSENT”), and plenty have gone viral. The book The Notorious RBG, written by the woman who created the Tumblr page of the same name,was a New York Times bestseller. “Saturday Night Live” favorite Kate McKinnon has impersonated the justice a number of times—something Justice Ginsburg can be seen enjoying immensely in RBG.

West and Cohen had each previously interviewed their famous subject: West featured her in the 2013 TV mini-series she developed and co-produced, “Makers: Women Who Make America,” and Cohen included her in the 2014 documentary she directed, The Sturgeon Queens. In neither project was Justice Ginsburg the primary focus, but as the years passed, the filmmakers grew increasingly aware of “how much of a rock star she was becoming among young women,” says Cohen.

Adds West: “We thought many of these people who were such fans of hers really didn’t know the whole story.”

But winning over the unexpected celeb, who, at a spry 85, is still serving on the Supreme Court, was no easy task. When the filmmakers approached her with their idea for a documentary three years ago, Justice Ginsburg replied: “Not yet.”

Nevertheless, they persisted. West and Cohen reached out once more, this time taking a more strategic approach by offering to speak with friends, colleagues, former clients and family first before interviewing her.

“Well, I wouldn’t be ready to talk to you for two years,” West says the busy justice replied. “But here’s some other people you might want to talk to.”

Both West and Cohen insist Justice Ginsburg had no hand in shaping the final documentary: “She didn’t ask for and she didn’t see earlier drafts of the film or scripts of the film,” says Cohen. Yet, in typically understated fashion, Justice Ginsburg’s influence on RBG can be felt in her “very good” and logical suggestions for interview subjects and events the directors ought to cover.

Thus, it was Justice Ginsburg who recommended the filmmakers speak with her friend and former colleague at the U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Harry Edwards, “who’s just a fantastic interview in the film,” says Cohen. It was Justice Ginsburg who recommended they make “a fairly major role for her granddaughter, Clara,” who was a Harvard law student at the time. It was Justice Ginsburg, the opera aficionado, who tipped them off to the fact she would have a brief speaking role in the Washington National Opera’s staging of The Daughter of the Regiment. And it was Justice Ginsburg who told them she would be giving a talk at the Virginia Military Institute for the 20th anniversary of her landmark ruling that struck down VMI’s men-only admissions policy and opened the school to women.

West says that although by now she’s seen the film “a lot of times,” she never tires of hearing Justice Ginsburg “describe what it was like to argue the idea that women were equal to a group of judges, who—it’s not even like they disagreed with that, it’s like the thought had never crossed their minds. And her description that she was like a kindergarten teacher as she was making these arguments,” gently guiding intelligent, grown men toward her eminently logical conclusions, “I still find a really moving moment.”

But with a career as lengthy as Justice Ginsburg’s, important moments in her life were bound to go unmentioned. How did the filmmakers decide what to include, and what to leave unexplored in their 97-minute documentary? (“We felt really strongly about trying to keep it down to an hour and a half,” says Cohen. “Sometimes, we feel that films that go on longer than that, about one person, can get repetitive,” agrees West.)

West describes the rational criteria they used to determine what they did and did not note: “To some extent, it revolved around the availability of the audio on the Supreme Court audio channel, called Oyez. They’ve been recording the arguments since the late sixties.”  Even though Justice Ginsburg “had done some work” prior to the earliest case the filmmakers highlight in RBG, 1972’s Frontiero v. Richardson, “she hadn’t argued before the Supreme Court. So we really focused it around cases where we could illustrate what she did.”

While comparatively minor events—like the period of time early in her career that Justice Ginsburg lived abroad in Sweden as she conducted research for a book—were thus omitted from RBG, at least one major aspect of the icon’s life is hardly discussed in the film: her Jewish heritage.

“I would not say that was a conscious decision,” says West of the general religious omission. “In fact, we made a point of adding in at least the facts in the film at some point, because we realized it was missing it... She, like every person of her era, did face some anti-Semitism, as well as the sexism that she faced. I think she had sort of more struggles with sexism”—such as being refused admittance to a room in Harvard’s Lamont Library, because she was a woman; or being unable to find a job for some time after law school, because she was a woman—“and that was more the focus of what her legal career was all about. So that was the focus.”

“As a Jewish person, I feel her Jewishness when I see her with Clara,” Cohen shares. “So, to me, it’s kind of there. But yes, there’s sort of not explicit discussions of it in the film.” Although, Cohen notes, “her whole story was launched by her parents’ decision to leave Europe because of what they then faced.”

Though there was some footage that failed to make the cut which the filmmakers did like and “tried to sandwich” into their documentary, “once you make the decision [to cut], we put it aside,” says Cohen firmly.

“We put it aside!” concurs West.

“It’s over!”

“It’s over!”

The warmth, enthusiasm and humor in the filmmakers’ voices are just as evident in their film. After all, their subject, too, is someone whom West describes as “a witty person.”

“She loves to laugh,” West stresses of Justice Ginsburg. “Witness her love affair with her very amusing husband, Marty Ginsburg.”

Fans of the well-reasoned Notorious RBG might be pleasantly surprised to learn the Supreme Court Justice was for many years part of a moving love story. She met Martin Ginsburg while she was an undergraduate and he a first-year law student at Cornell. They married the year Ruth graduated, and then, after Marty served briefly in the military, together went on to Harvard Law School (in which Ruth was just one of nine women in a class of over 500 men). When Marty became sick with cancer, Ruth—who by then also had their baby daughter to raise—“burned the candle at both ends,” often sleeping no more than two hours a night as she completed her own studies while nursing and assisting Marty with his work. When Marty secured a job in New York, she transferred to Columbia Law School. Years later, when it was Ruth’s career that was taking off, Marty followed her to Washington, D.C. When President Clinton was considering Ruth for the Supreme Court, Marty, in typically gregarious, charming and open-hearted fashion, went campaigning for his wife. As one interviewee notes, Marty didn’t just toot Ruth’s horn, he “played the New York Philharmonic.”

The filmmakers were themselves pleasantly surprised when Justice Ginsburg’s official biographers sent them an unexpected, Marty-related gift. “We didn’t know there were going to be amazing home movies,” recalls West. “And one day, a DVD showed up in the mail, and there they were: a young Ruth Bader and her boyfriend, Marty, at Cornell. And their wedding, honeymoon, and pictures with their first child.”

Says Cohen, “Whenever you see a biographical documentary on a big public figure, you’re hoping to understand a little bit more about the human side, the side you don’t see when she’s interviewed in her robes. And that’s what the love story helps bring up.”

Sadly, Marty passed away in 2010. Shortly thereafter, Ruth, though heartbroken, was back on the court, reading an opinion. Her focus is indeed something to behold—as a wildly entertaining sequence in RBG, and therefore one the lighthearted Marty would surely approve of, makes clear.

“We didn’t quite believe it until we saw it ourselves,” admits West of the sight that is Justice Ginsburg, the deceptively slight octogenarian, working out. Not pumping two-pound weights or bending to touch her knees, mind you, but planking and doing push-ups, and exercising with medicine balls. The sweatshirt she wears is emblazoned with the phrase, “Super Diva!”

“We were surprised and pleased when she gave us permission to bring cameras into her session with her personal trainer,” remembers Cohen. Justice Ginsburg’s workout had already received plenty of attention online, thanks to an article from POLITICO reporter Patrick Welsh that carried the unashamedly click-baity title, “I Did Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Workout. It Nearly Broke Me.”

West and Cohen, however, felt galvanized by what they saw. Recalls Cohen, “Being crouched in the corner as we were, watching it all unfold…it was inspiring on a lot of levels, and actually led my colleague here to start doing some planking.”

Yes, West admits, after witnessing Justice Ginsburg in aerobic action, she, too, began strength training. “It made me realize it is important for women as they get older. Justice Ginsburg’s been an icon to the Millennial generation, but I also think she’s an amazing role model for elderly people.”

And therein lies one of the more appealing aspects of Justice Ginsburg’s story for the filmmakers: Her popularity seems nearly to defy the logic upon which pop-cultural sensations have typically rested. “There’s something I find both fascinating and touching about the idea that women in their 20s would view, you know, let’s face it, this pretty serious judge, legal pioneer, in this celebrity way,” Cohen observes. “For me, as a middle-aged woman, seeing young women really admire this older woman—you don’t see it that often and it’s really nice to see in our youth-obsessed culture.”

Although many of these young women regard Justice Ginsburg as fearless for voicing her dissenting opinions, like those she gave in the recent Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case or 2013’s Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the filmmakers witnessed Justice Ginsburg acting courageously in a different manner.

“She did not ask to see the movie before the first screening, which was at the Sundance Film Festival. She attended. So the first time she saw the film was with an audience of several hundred people,” West recalls.

“We thought it was amazingly brave of her,” adds Cohen. “Trusting and brave to come and see the film. It was like, ‘Oh, you made a documentary about me? I’ll come and see it with an audience.’”

Remembers West: “Afterwards, she was very gracious and said how much she enjoyed it. It exceeded her expectations.”

Still, the filmmakers don’t harbor many illusions about their rock-star subject. Both say they agree with the apology Justice Ginsburg issued after she spoke out against President Trump and called him a “faker” during his 2016 presidential campaign. “As she so eloquently puts it in the film, the wisest course would have been to say nothing,” notes Cohen.

And yet the logical attitude Justice Ginsburg has held for most of her life is perhaps better suited than most to this, the Trump era. West hopes viewers will leave the theatre having “taken in” Justice Ginsburg’s view that anger ”is a waste of time,” and will appreciate “she was very strategic in meeting her goals” and “bringing a series of cases in a very strategic, logical way to fight discrimination.”

The filmmaker continues, “I think it’s worthwhile thinking about it when you’re facing a battle, how to approach it. As her granddaughter says, yelling is just not going to bring people to your table. It’s not really the way that Justice Ginsburg was able to accomplish all the things she was able to accomplish.”