As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recovers from recent surgery for early stage lung cancer, two new films are paying tribute to her life and accomplishments.
The documentary “RBG”, by filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, chronicles the justice’s lifelong legal battles for gender equality, her appointment to the Supreme Court by an overwhelming vote of 96 to 3 in 1993 and her rise as a pop culture icon in America. The feature “On the Basis of Sex”, by Mimi Leder, another female filmmaker, offers a dramatized portrayal of the beginnings of Justice Ginsburg’s illustrious career and her fight for women’s rights, through the lens of her personal life.
Leder’s film follows Justice Ginsburg’s challenges in a man’s world, starting with her first year as a Harvard law student in 1954. She was one of nine female students among more than 500 men, a situation that did not please the school’s dean, played by Sam Waterston. The film shows the character demanding to know why they are occupying seats that could otherwise have gone to young men.
“On the Basis of Sex” also looks into Ginsburg’s life as a wife and mother. At some point she was supporting her convalescent husband, who had suffered testicular cancer, by attending both her classes and his.
Daniel Stiepleman, the film’s screenwriter, is Justice Ginsburg’s nephew. He told VOA that apart from her legal acumen and advocacy for women’s rights, he wanted to share his first-hand experience of Ginsburg’s equal partnership with her husband, renowned tax law attorney Martin Ginsburg.
“My wife and I have always looked up to Aunt Ruth and Uncle Marty as our role models for what a marriage is supposed to be like,” he explained. “They shared the load raising their kids, getting food on the table, and taking care of the house, and we knew that that’s how we wanted to be as well. And so, for me, this was an opportunity to share our good fortune to have them as role models with the rest of the country, the rest of the world.”
Actor Armie Hammer interprets Martin Ginsburg. Hammer says he felt privileged to learn about the man’s character from Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself. “We were very lucky to have time with Justice Ginsburg in her private chambers in the Supreme Court. She invited us in and she was very generous with her time. More than actually answering any of my questions, I learned everything I needed to know about the relationship, [because] the minute his name came up she started smiling. And I could feel that love was very much alive.”
Hammer predicts the film will inspire audiences, especially women during the #MeToo era. “I think it is great for women to see a movie about a woman who changed the world without needing superpowers.”
Ginsburg herself is portrayed by Felicity Jones. It was a role she found, to say the least, challenging. She told VOA, “It was nerve wracking! You don’t enter into that lightly so it was about becoming her in every single way and doing justice to her story.” She also says that though the events surrounding Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life have been dramatized for the sake of entertainment, they speak truth to power. “It is so important that it does entertain but at the same time, it’s about getting a message into this world and about saying,‘Look what men and women can achieve when they work together, when they have absolute equality.'”
RBG chronicles Justice Ginsburg’s life from her birth to an immigrant Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, to her rise as a pop culture icon known as “Notorious R.B.G.” Since 2013, when the majority of the Supreme Court justices were conservative, Justice Ginsburg became the most vocal dissenting liberal voice on the court. At that time, New York University law student Shana Knizhnik created a blog about Ginsburg’s fiery dissenting opinions against decisions by the majority conservative justices. She coined the term, “Notorious R.B.G.,” echoing the moniker of a well-known rapper — also from Brooklyn — The Notorious B.I.G.
Knizhnik’s blog and follow-up best-selling book re-introduced the octogenarian’s pivotal role in the fight for gender equality and women’s rights for more than half a century, and established her as the bulwark of liberalism in the high court. Every time Knizhnik would write about another of Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions, “the web would explode,” comments a young woman in the documentary.
Media strategist Frank Chi created an online graphic of the justice in her Supreme Court robe and white collar and a crown like the one worn by The Notorious B.I.G. The image caught on: tattoos, t-shirts and mugs would carry his design, and images created by others. Chocolatier Sue Cassidy says her company, Choukette, includes a portrait of Ginsburg on chocolate, as part of its Phenomenal Women line. “She has her own box, and we can’t keep them in stock. They are just selling like crazy.”
“I am 84 years old and everybody wants to take a picture with me,” says a mischievous Justice Ginsburg. She has been hailed as a pioneer for gender equality, a tenacious Supreme Court justice, determined to work as long as she can make a difference on the bench.
In 2011, a year after the death of her husband, Justice Ginsburg spoke with VOA’s Julie Taboh about her legacy. “I hope that I will be remembered as someone who loves the law, loves her country, loved humanity, prizes the dignity of every individual, and works as hard as she can, with whatever talent she has to make the world a little better than it was when I entered it,” she said.
Justice Ginsburg has spoken highly of both films depicting her life. Filmmaker Leder says the justice offered advice for On the Basis of Sex and fact-checked it. “She saw the film and she gave me a hug and a kiss, and that alone was incredible. I feel that women will be inspired not just in this country, but all over the world by the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which is her fight for equality, inclusion, her fight against injustice.”