The passing of legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18 inspired tributes from across the legal and political spectrum. Aside from dozens of celebrities sharing their thoughts on the Notorious RBG via Twitter and other social media, Hollywood has provided the opportunity to pay tribute to her this weekend by rereleasing two films about her life–the 2018 documentary RBG and the 2019 biopic On the Basis of Sex. The films will play in 1,000 theaters and on multiple on-demand platforms…
Net proceeds will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation in support of its Women’s Rights Project, which was co-founded by Ginsburg in 1972. Aside from financial support for a cause dear to her heart, the rerelease offers entertaining and compelling history lessons on her remarkable life.
RBG was produced by CNN Films, using the cable news giant’s ample news-gathering resources to explore several of her important cases and the cumulative impact they had on society. It also serves up some fun and surprisingly romantic looks at the usually super-serious–or in her own words, “sober”–jurist that can make viewers of any political stripe appreciate her humanity.
The doc opens with an audio montage of President Trump and several right-wing media figures’ disparaging comments about Ginsburg before cutting quickly to footage of then-Senator Joe Biden opening her Supreme Court confirmation hearing as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993. While the film was originally released two years ago, this opening salvo makes it feel torn from today’s headlines as the country steels itself for a bruising confirmation battle for her successor.
Quickly moving through her childhood as the daughter of Russian immigrants, the doc finds its footing in recounting how she managed to shine as one of the first women at Harvard Law School, while also juggling motherhood and marriage to her husband, Martin Ginsburg. That drive continued throughout her life, carrying her through Marty’s battle with cancer as well as her career at the Supreme Court, where she was known to work until 4 a.m.
RBG shows how she challenged the country’s extensive armory of laws allowing sex discrimination one by one. The doc helps viewers see that sweeping changes often come through small increments. Perhaps her most brilliant move as a civil rights lawyer came in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), in which she successfully defended a widower’s right to survivor benefits under Social Security, previously only granted to widows caring for minor children. That was one of several cases she won that strengthened the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, which she then harnessed to make important legal strides for women.
But where RBG truly shines is in its final third, where it follows her path to rock-star status in popular culture by becoming the strongest dissenting voice on the Supreme Court as it shifted sharply rightward in the 2000s.
While RBG entertainingly covers the broad scope of Ginsburg’s life and career, On the Basis of Sex narrows its focus to her days as a law student, wife and mother before leaping into an in-depth exploration of the Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld case. The biopic does a solid job of illustrating the obstacles confronting women lawyers, who were consistently underestimated.
The movie is anchored by a terrific performance by British actress Felicity Jones, who bears a striking resemblance to the young Ginsburg and nails her blend of steely resolve and caring heart as well as her Brooklyn accent. Armie Hammer plays her lawyer-husband, Marty, as a man comfortable in his masculinity while he strongly supported his wife’s ambitions; it was a marriage of equals in the home and the courtroom.
Director Mimi Leder brings it all together with dynamic production and costume design that brings the 1950s and 1970s to life; a rousing score by Mychael Danna drives it all home.
RBG streams on Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and Google Play, and Basis is on Showtime, iTunes and Google Play. Both Basis and RBG are well worth seeing, and couldn’t be more timely.