Thursday, July 5, 2018

RBG (CNN Films, Storyville Films, Magnolia Pictures, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles looked up the local movie schedules and found that the Landmark Cinemas in Hillcrest were showing RBG, a 2018 documentary produced by CNN Films (who knew the pioneering cable news channel had a feature-films division?), Storyville Films and Magnolia Pictures about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That seemed like an appropriate movie to see on the Fourth of July, especially the second Fourth of July under the regime of President Donald Trump (or, as I’m sure he would prefer to be, Dictator Donald Trump), even though the outcome of the last election and the packing of the Supreme Court (and the federal courts in general) by Trump and his fellow Republicans made this film considerably sadder than it would have been if the election had gone the other way and Hillary Clinton had succeeded in cracking America’s last and thickest glass ceiling. Indeed, as I told Charles after it ended, the main open questions about Ruth Bader Ginsburg are how soon it will be before she croaks and which President Trump will get to appoint her successor — Donald or Ivanka. RBG was a quite good movie, co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West and effectively balanced between Justice Ginsburg’s personal life and her remarkable professional career. She met her husband Martin (universally called “Marty” or Yiddish-derived diminutives) at Cornell University in 1950, and judging from the photos we see, even in the loose-fitting and decidedly unflattering clothes college men generally wore at the time, he was a hunk and it’s no wonder Our Heroine fell hard for him — and stayed married to him for 53 years until his death in 2010. Ironically, though Marty ultimately died of cancer, he had had an earlier bout with it while he and Ruth were both still undergraduates and Ruth had just given birth to their first child, a daughter (they would have a son later), and he incredibly survived even though the cancer treatments of those days were pretty dire — they had radiation but chemotherapy didn’t exist yet and Ruth had to nurse her husband, raise their daughter and continue to pursue a college career. When she graduated from Cornell she applied to Harvard Law School and was told point-blank by the admissions officer, “Why are you taking a place that should go to a man?” Challenging sexism, and doing it politely but firmly, became the Leitmotif of Ginsburg’s career; she made Law Review in her second year at Harvard — an honor only open to the top 10 percent of her class — though she left Harvard after her second year to join her husband in New York City and finished her legal education at Columbia. (That seems to have been the only time Marty Ginsburg got his wife to move so he could pursue his career — he also became an attorney, though he specialized in tax law — instead of him having to move so she could pursue hers.) 

The film details the quite remarkable string of cases Ruth Bader Ginsburg litigated for women’s rights in the 1970’s — like such other liberal Supreme Court justices as Louis Brandeis and Thurgood Marshall, Ginsburg accomplished as much for the progressive legal agenda before joining the U.S. Supreme Court as she has on it — including one in which she took the case of Sharron Frontiero, a U.S. Air Force officer who demanded an on-base housing allowance and was told they were only given to men and she should consider herself lucky she was allowed in the Air Force at all. (I’ve read elsewhere that the Air Force is still the most sexist — and the most anti-Queer — of all the U.S. military services, and women who want to qualify as Air Force pilots are socially pressured into taking lower-prestige, lower-paying jobs such as radar operators or spotters instead.) Ginsburg won an 8-1 Supreme Court decision for Frontiero but was disappointed because only four of the nine Justices were willing to accept her reading of the Constitution as banning gender discrimination and making women a “suspect class” under civil-rights law. Frontiero was interviewed for this film and so was Stephen Weisenfeld, who lost his wife in childbirth and applied for Social Security survivor’s benefits so he could have the money to raise his daughter as a single father — and was told the benefit was called the “mother’s benefit” and was only available to women who’d lost their husbands, not men who lost their wives. Ginsburg took Weisenfeld’s case because she wanted to establish that discrimination based on gender was wrong and should be illegal no matter whether it harmed women or favored them, and in one of her most famous Supreme Court arguments she said that laws meant to “protect” women from the hazards of particular occupations or educational programs “put women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.” Ginsburg also represented women students in their legal battle to open the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) to women, and while she won the case she says in the movie she went to VMI years later and there were still men coming up to her saying, “Why did you ruin our school?” (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nothing the human race has done to itself — not even all the wars and their accompanying destruction — has been as self-defeatingly stupid as our millennia-old refusal to use the full talents of the more than half of the human population that is female just because of some minor differences in reproductive plumbing.) 

Ginsburg got appointed to the Washington, D.C. Federal Court of Appeals in the late 1970’s by Jimmy Carter — who’s quoted in the film as saying that he looked at all the federal judges, found they all looked like him, and was determined to get both racial and gender diversity into the courts — and to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by Bill Clinton. She was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3 in the U.S. Senate — an amazing show of near-unanimity that seems virtually impossible in today’s highly polarized world — and there’s a comment from Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to the effect that he might not agree with Ginsburg, but that the American people had elected a Democratic President, he had a Constitutional prerogative to appoint a Supreme Court justice who agreed with his view of the law, and unless she was outrageously unqualified for intellectual or ethical reasons he was going to vote for her. Ginsburg came onto the Supreme Court hoping to be a consensus-builder and the justices she served with originally, including William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor, were conservatives but not so closed-minded she couldn’t at least discuss issues with them and sometimes reach a compromise. (Earlier, as an appeals court judge, she would present a fully written, cited, documented opinion on the case to the other two judges on the three-judge panels that generally decide federal appeals — and the other two judges would wonder, “Why are we here?,” though they’d generally decide she was right and would adopt her opinion.) That changed during the George W. Bush administration, when Rehnquist died, O’Connor retired and Bush’s appointees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, were much more ideologically driven and hard-line in their Rightism, and from the consensus-builder she had hoped to be Ginsburg found herself in dissent on most of the big cases.  

RBG closes with a depiction of how Justice Ginsburg’s dissents have made her an icon not only among progressive law students but young people in general — earning her the nickname “Notorious R.B.G.,” after the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. (a clip from one of whose videos is included in the film). Asked how she feels about being compared to a rapper who was murdered, most likely as part of a gang rivalry (members of gangs associated with B.I.G. had just killed rival rapper Tupac Shakur, and Tupac’s gang affiliates killed B.I.G. in revenge — and people wonder why I consider “gangsta” rap an inherently immoral and evil art form?), Ginsburg replied that the two did have at least one thing in common: they both grew up in Brooklyn. The show touches on other aspects of Ginsburg’s life, including her love of opera (she and the late Justice Antonin Scalia bonded over opera and formed a close friendship despite their being ideological opposites on the Court; they even did a lecture tour together, a clip of which is shown here) and the controversial statement she made during the 2016 Presidential campaign in which she said that Donald Trump was unqualified for the office — which she had to take back after various commentators (and not just Right-wing ones, either) pointed out that as a Justice she might some day have to rule on a bill or an executive order signed by Trump and she shouldn’t say anything that might lead people to question her impartiality. RBG is a remarkable look at a remarkable life, though it’s also a profoundly sad film given how under President Trump and the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress the U.S. is moving at near-warp speed away from all the conceptions of justice Ginsburg has believed in and advanced through her entire career, both as an attorney and as a judge.