If you are looking for a way to end your holiday weekend on an uplifting note, I strongly recommend watching “RBG,” a documentary on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, airing at 9 tonight on CNN.
After a week of mourning the loss of two American icons in Aretha Franklin and Senator John McCain, this inspirational film is a welcome reminder of another remarkable figure who is still with us and actively engaged in work that affects all of our lives in monumental ways.
Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, “RBG” does something that only the very best biographies do: It gives viewers a deep and multi-layered sense of the times in which the subject lived and the cultural forces that she had to struggle against to achieve what she did.
In “RBG,” that means communicating a sense of the rigidly patriarchal America into which she was born through to the women’s movement of the 1970s, which she helped drive with win after win in the Supreme Court as an attorney fighting to help an all-male bench start to see women as equal under the law.
That’s one story: Ginsburg’s brilliant academic and legal career — and how she used her skills to change the culture. That’s epic, and West and Cohen help viewers see it rightfully as comparable to what Thurgood Marshall did to change the way the law viewed people of color in the nation. That context opened my eyes to appreciate Ginsburg in a way I had not before screening this film.
But if all that sound too much like reading a history book on a holiday weekend, fear not.
West and Cohen also track a moving love story between this remarkable woman and Martin Ginsburg, her late husband, a tax attorney who regularly sublimated his career to his wife’s and did so joyously, according to the many images and words in “RBG” showing him as he celebrates her triumphs.
Ginsburg’s husband had a lovely sense of humor captured in video of Martin speaking to a group about their family.
In talking about a piece their daughter wrote in school about life inside the Ginsburg home, he said, “She grew up in a family where responsibility was equally shared: Her father did the cooking, and her mother did the thinking.”
There is also a joyous exploration in the film of what Ginsburg has become in popular culture as “The Notorius RBG” thanks to social media, Kate McKinnon’s portrayal on “Saturday Night Live” and a growing number of millennial women aware of the roads she paved for them on their still unfinished journey to equal rights.
There is, of course, one other element beyond the losses of Franklin and McCain last week that makes “RBG” especially timely: The confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the high court, which are scheduled to begin tomorrow.
I don’t want to make this about politics, but that’s pretty much impossible these days, isn’t it?
So, let me just say this one thing in suggesting how this film contributes to the democratic ideal of a more informed citizenry.
Watch “RBG” and think about what she did for women. Then think about the similarly landmark work Marshall did on behalf of persons of color before he was nominated for the Supreme Court.
Now look at Kavanaugh’s legal career as it is presented in these hearings, and ask yourself if he has done anything remotely comparable.
If you want more on Ruth Bader Ginsburg after seeing “RBG,” CNN has also launched a podcast, “Beyond Notorious” with Poppy Harlow and Jeff Toobin.