The last few years have been inundated with content about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away last fall. 2018 saw the release of the documentary “RBG,” which gave an overview of Ginsburg’s life and career with some emphasis on her recent status as a social media icon, and the 2019 narrative feature “On the Basis of Sex” told the story of Ginsburg’s early career following her graduation from Columbia Law School, her struggle to find a job because of her gender despite graduating first in her class, and her work on a landmark 1970 gender discrimination case. Despite all of this, “Ruth- Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words,” a new documentary from Oscar-winning director Freida Lee Mock, still has a lot to contribute to the conversation surrounding Ginsburg’s contributions and a new way to say it.
“Ruth” contains a good number of interviews throughout with people who either knew and worked with Ginsburg or are experts in her life and career. Among them are Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, who co-authored the book Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Knizhnik also started the viral Tumblr blog of the same name); Justice Goodwin Liu, who clerked for Ginsburg in 2000; and Kathleen Peratis, who once served as the director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, which Ginsburg co-founded in 1972. But this film also spends a good deal of time highlighting some of the most notable cases in Ginsburg’s career, and a few of the participants in those cases reflect on their experience, such as Lily Ledbetter, who lost a case against Goodyear, her employer, seeking equal pay as her male coworkers. But Ginsburg’s dissent of the result ultimately to the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Ginsburg also argued in the case United States v. Virginia that women should be allowed to attend the all-male Virginia Military Institute. Jennifer Carroll Foy, one of the first women to graduate from the school after the rule was changed, reflects on how her ability to attend the military school changed her life and career (she is currently serving on Virginia’s House of Delegates, and is running for Virginia’s Governor this year). These segways sometimes feel like they distract some from looking at Ginsburg herself, but it’s nice to see tangible evidence of how Ginsburg’s work arguing for women’s rights had an impact.
Many other cases which Ginsburg was a participant in, either as a litigator or a judge, are highlighted throughout the film, illustrated with artwork and animation by Jason Carpenter laid over actual audio from the court proceedings. Some of these cases many viewers may already be familiar with, such as Weinburger v. Wiesenfeld, which argued on behalf of a widower seeking social security benefits after his wife passed away that he was deemed ineligible for because they were supposedly only for widows. Others are less well known to the general public, like Craig v. Boren or Duren v. Missouri. Each case is explored just enough to give the viewer a general overview without getting too complex, but also lend insight into the sort of issues Ginsburg championed throughout her career.
Despite containing many contemporary interviews, perhaps the most notable aspect of “Ruth” is that the bulk of it is made up of archival footage of Ginsburg herself. Maybe I’m just showing some ignorance here, but a lot of this footage I’ve never seen before, from the 1993 hearing to admit Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, to casual meetings and conversations she had with schoolchildren. All of these paint a picture of who Ginsburg was as a person—funny and down to earth—as well as how seriously she took her work. It’s great to hear others speak on her behalf, but it’s even more impactful to see and hear from the documentary’s subject herself.
The biggest flaw of “Ruth” is that it lacks a coherent structure. The film jumps around from discussions of court cases to Ginsburg’s relationship with her husband of 56 years and her close friendship with fellow Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, despite their completely opposing views on the law. It appears to go mostly chronologically, and it’s easy to see the trajectory of Ginsburg’s career by the end of the film, but some of the middle gets a bit muddled.
“Ruth” starts out with a question: “How does a person with three strikes against her rise to the highest court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court?” Those three strike being, the fact that she was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. I’m not sure that “Ruth” answers the more technical what and how of that question for us, but it does leave us understanding why.
“Ruth- Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words” will be released in virtual cinemas this Friday. It will also be available to watch on the Starz app starting March 1, and will air on Starz on March 15 at 8 PM EST in honor of Justice Ginsburg’s birthday. Runtime: 89 minutes. Not rated.