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‘Ruth – Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words’ looks at an American icon

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There are a couple of different ways to make a documentary focused on a single figure. You can go the cradle to grave route. You can take the snapshot view, pulling a moment or moments to the forefront to serve as your foundation. Or you can mix it up, using the latter strategy to develop ideas within the framework of the former.

That last method is what Academy Award winner Freida Lee Mock has opted to do with “Ruth – Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words,” the documentary newly available via virtual theatrical screening. The film takes a look at much of the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life, though the primary focus is on her relationship with the Supreme Court, both in terms of arguing before it and serving on it.

Unfortunately, the film’s relatively lengthy quest for distribution – the film started making the festival rounds back in 2019 – means that in some aspects, it is a little dated. Specifically, it was completed before Justice Ginsburg’s passing in September of last year, leaving a few segments feeling a little askew.

Still, those off-key moments are relatively few and found primarily in the film’s final act. For the majority of the proceedings, we watch as the dynamic between the legal powerhouse that was RBG and the highest court in the land grows and evolves. And we get that through the standard talking head interviews, yes, but also – and primarily – through audio and video recordings of the woman herself, lending a proximity of perspective that invites the viewer in.

I’m guessing I probably don’t need to go into too much detail about the life and times of RBG – if you’re reading a review of a documentary about her, chances are you’re already at least somewhat aware of who she is. That said, let me run down the CliffsNotes version.

Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn in 1933. She excelled academically and made her way to Cornell University, where – among other things – she would meet her future husband Martin Ginsberg. She started law school at Harvard before transferring to Columbia, where she would finish first in her class.

After an eye-opening quest for work wherein she couldn’t even get an interview due to the perceived dual strikes of womanhood and motherhood, Ginsburg became a law professor at Rutgers and went on to a storied stretch of advocating for gender equality and women’s rights, much of it via her work with the ACLU. In 1980, Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington D.C. Thirteen years later, Bill Clinton would nominate her to succeed Byron White on the U.S. Supreme Court, where she would serve until her death at the age of 87.

Along the way, she became something of an icon, particularly in liberal circles that celebrated both her groundbreaking work as a litigator and her passionate and often-pointed dissents from the bench. We’ve all heard about the “Notorious RBG,” after all.

In “Ruth,” we get a personal perspective on Ginsburg’s life and work from the source; through video and audio recordings, we hear RBG expound upon the things that matter most to her – family, equality and respect for the law.

My personal favorite of these framing devices is the extended use of a video recording from early in RBG’s Supreme Court tenure, a visit from a group of students from Indianapolis. The questions asked by these kids, and Ginsburg’s responses to them, offer a gateway into various aspects of Ginsburg’s life and career. Sometimes we get video footage of the moment, sometimes we get audio overlaid over courtroom sketches. It’s all in service to sharing the story of this remarkable woman.

It’s only at the end that the film’s lengthy distribution turnaround becomes apparent. Leaving aside the occasional oof of this talking head or that one discussing RBG’s at-the-time robust health, the political climate in which this film was made differs significantly than our current moment; the exploration of the lovely friendship between Ginsburg and her political opposite Antonin Scalia loses a bit of luster in the fervent partisanship of the now, an atmosphere that has grown exponentially more contentious in just the couple of years between the making of the film and now.

While the mildly dated nature of the film’s conclusion is a bit of a rug pull, there’s still a lot to like about “Ruth.” Again, the use of that archival audio – whether from a classroom or an office or either side of the Supreme Court bench – allows for a very intimate connection with a woman who, for all her public-facing feats, kept things rather close to the vest regarding herself. It’s those glimpses that deepen the portrait of the legal firebrand; we see a woman who loves her family just as much as she loves the law – and that’s A LOT.

“Ruth – Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” delivers on the promise of its title. And while the film’s impact is ever-so-slightly dulled by the outsized events that occurred between the conclusion of filming and the present, the talents of Mock and her team largely make up for it. While you may or may not learn new facts about RBG here, you’ll almost certainly have a stronger sense of who she was – and really, isn’t that the point?

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 14 February 2021 18:50

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