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All Hail RBG! How Her Story Came to the Screen

The big hit of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the remarkable Supreme Court justice. But it took two super-fans to get this icon’s story onto the big screen. Michele Willens reports.

Read time: 5 minutes

At the hip, happening Sundance Film Festival in January, the most revered and selfied attendee was not a glittery guest like Keira Knightley, Claire Danes, Robert Redford or Usher. No, in that snowy gathering of the young and blemish-free, it was a tiny 84-year-old woman in huge eyeglasses—her face proudly reflecting a lifetime of experience, for which we should be bowing down in gratitude.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the subject of the new documentary entitled “RBG.”  It was such a hit at Sundance that all those indie filmmakers watched in envy as the film was immediately snapped up for distribution. It opens on film screens May 4th.    

Two Women with a Plan   

NextTribe rbg movie

Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen surround their famous subject.

For this, we owe our gratitude to two women: Betsy West and Julie Cohen. They spent years in the TV news business: West at ABC and CBS and Cohen at NBC—and are currently independent. Three years ago, they became aware that the octogenarian on the country’s highest court was having a moment. A book about the justice, called The Notorious RBG, had just been published, and millennials were extolling her virtues on Twitter and Tumblr. “They were wearing t-shirts and carrying tote bags, and in extreme cases getting tattoos—of her face,” recalls Cohen.

While they had each interviewed Ginsburg briefly in the past, the process of requesting her participation in a feature documentary was nerve wracking and perhaps a lesson for creative risk-takers. It began with the ask. “I think we spent a week composing the email,” recalls West of their first attempt in 2015. “We knew she was a stickler for detail.” They received a quick response of two words: “Not yet.”

“We told ourselves that ‘not yet’ is not ‘no,’” West continues, “and so we started interviewing other people about her, including her colleagues.” The women kept moving forward and then wrote Ginsburg again after several months. This time the response was, “I will not be prepared for two years.” “But she also gave us suggestions of people to interview, so we took a leap of faith,” says Cohen.

Access to the Inner Circle

The justice’s office began alerting West and Cohen to her speaking engagements, with the understanding that they could attend, cameras in hand. By the time the lady herself said okay, the filmmakers had already shot and edited enough so that they knew exactly what they needed from their subject. At that point, she offered access to pretty much all aspects of her life, including her regular exercise routine. She also watched while they showed her clips of Kate McKinnon portraying her on Saturday Night Live.

The first question everyone asked us while we were making the film was ‘How is her health?’

She roared at this impersonated version, who jauntily pledged to hang in there. Behind the humor was truth. “The first question everyone asked us, while we were making the film, was ‘How is her health?’” says Cohen. “Besides her age, she’d also had bouts of cancer. We were amazed at her determination and focus on what can only be described as a grueling schedule.”

There are many surprises in the documentary: Ginsburg’s two children (and her grandchildren) are endearing and devoted, and most important, there is a full account of her long marriage to Martin Ginsburg, who died in 2010. They met in school when she was 19, and he faced a life-challenging illness soon after. He survived and subsequently put her career ahead of his. And he always made her laugh.

RBG Movie: A young Ruth Bader before she added Ginsburg to her name.

The justice in her youth.

While some knew about her unusually close friendship with the late Antonin Scalia—with whom she shared not a single political idea—did anyone realize that they occasionally traveled together, shared a love of opera, and even performed skits together? “The number one comment we get from those who’ve seen the film is ‘I thought I knew about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but I didn’t really know her story,’” says Cohen.

A Legacy Unleashed

And then there was the legal work, the incredibly important discrimination cases she fought for, way before words like feminism and sexism were in our daily vocabulary. “For women practicing law today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an indefatigable role model,” says Lisa Green, attorney and author of On Your Case. “She is like our sun, shedding light and supplying energy to our ongoing efforts to eradicate gender discrimination. We can only hope to contribute a fraction of the impact she’s had.”

She fought against discrimination way before words like feminism and sexism were in our daily vocabulary.

The documentary details the astounding number of cases—some argued before the Court she would one day sit on—that turned even constitutional scholars’ heads around on female discrimination.  “I think she’s a towering figure, one of the most important women of the 20th century and going into the 21st,” says West, “and [she would have been] even if she hadn’t been on the Supreme Court.”

Stepping into the Spotlight

RBG Movie: Kate McKinnon as RBG on Saturday Night Live

Kate McKinnon as RBG on Saturday Night Live.

She seems to be enjoying every minute of this, as witnessed by the rabid attention of those lucky enough to be at Sundance. “It was really the pinnacle of the festival,” says Caroline Libresco, a Sundance senior programmer. “Having this larger-than-life figure in the room made even the distant institutions of power feel immediate and familiar.”

The pair of filmmakers, who have brought her full life to screen, hope that more than just women will support their work. “I hope wives bring their husbands and moms bring their sons,” says Cohen.  An Oscar nomination may be down the line, but, so far, the highlight occurred at the festival. They were thrilled when Justice Ginsburg agreed to attend, and then they were filled with nerves as she saw their work for the first time. “We got to watch her watching the film,” says West, “and she said it exceeded her expectations. We could die happy now.”

Further Reading:

The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong . . . and You Can Too!

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

My Own Words: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By Michele Willens


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