Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words takes the superhero approach to a Supreme Court icon

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Roxana Hadadi
·6 min read
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Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words
Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words

There is an animated gif that appears more than once in Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words: It depicts Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with her customary glasses, low bun, and black robes in place, doing a sort of jig outside of the Supreme Court as beams of rainbow light burst out from behind her. The gif was inspired by the 2013 Supreme Court decision in United States V. Windsor, which legalized gay marriage, and for which Ginsburg joined fellow Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in their majority opinion. It’s a cute-enough internet meme that celebrates Ginsburg as a sort of superhero, and that’s basically the approach of Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words, too.

Filmmaker Freida Lee Mock draws from photographs, video footage, and audio recordings of Ginsburg; collects interviews with mentees, colleagues, and fans; and utilizes animated sequences of courtroom proceedings to pad out this 89-minute documentary. That tactic means that the documentary is essentially stitched together by available archival material, and makes for an uneven balance. Rather than telling Ginsburg’s life story linearly, Mock (who frustratingly doesn’t date some of this footage, or identify everyone within it) begins with video of Ginsburg saying of her early career struggles, “I suspected the door was closed because of my sex.” That statement essentially served as Ginsburg’s mantra, and during the 1970s, she brought case after case before the Supreme Court in an effort to transform how the U.S. legal system addressed gender inequality.

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When those cases are the focus of Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words, the documentary is at its best. Mock pairs animated depictions of Ginsburg arguing before the Supreme Court in cases such as 1975’s Weinberger V. Wiesenfeld and 1976’s Craig V. Boren with commentary from Ginsburg’s colleagues and mentees, including American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) volunteer M.E. Freeman and ACLU attorney Kathleen Peratis. They speak thoughtfully about how Ginsburg strategized those cases, prepared her remarks, and conducted research to bolster her arguments, and these scenes are the closest the documentary comes to making plain for us Ginsburg’s intellect and tenacity.

The problem, though, is that these sequences don’t really include much of Ginsburg “in her own words,” and when Mock shifts focus to other areas of Ginsburg’s life for which she does have footage of the justice, the documentary sags. Mock wanders around the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court and shows us Ginsburg’s locker and chair with her nameplate on them; incorporates footage of Ginsburg visiting her elementary school, answering the questions of fourth- and fifth-graders visiting the court, and sitting on a panel at her alma mater Columbia Law School; and then backtracks to her Supreme Court nomination by President Bill Clinton and her confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate, led at that time by current President Joe Biden. Numerous photographs of the Supreme Court justices capture Ginsburg among the nine, while other, more casual images show Ginsburg with Kagan, Sotomayor, and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. This patchwork creates a portrait of Ginsburg that underscores her decades-long presence in the federal judiciary and her late-career blossoming as a beloved public figure, but the effect is sometimes disappointingly superficial because of the broad-but-shallow nature of these components. There’s simultaneously too much and too little.

And for all the “in her own words” aspect of this documentary, Ginsburg isn’t captured saying much we didn’t already know about her, especially if you saw the Mimi Leder-directed 2018 Ginsburg biopic On The Basis Of Sex. Despite being fictionalized, that film went more in-depth on Ginsburg’s career frustrations, camaraderie with her female law students at Rutgers University, and partnership with the ACLU in the 1970s. This puts Ruth in a strange position: The documentary presents itself as being a sort of exclusively illuminating glimpse into Ginsburg was, but its offerings mostly align with what Ginsburg devotees already know. And in repeating Ginsburg’s myriad ideologies through the “in her own words” approach, the documentary frustratingly steps back from interrogation or analysis.

This is particularly noticeable during the film’s section on her across-the-aisle friendship with fellow Justice Samuel Alito, which is given nearly as much attention as her marriage to fellow lawyer, Martin. Mock incorporates various clips from speaking engagements that Ginsburg and Alito attended together, interviews during which they discussed their friendship, and even the staging of an opera that honored their unlikely closeness, given their highly oppositional political views. The whole vibe here is, “Wasn’t that nice?”—which makes for a strange disconnect when the documentary elevates Ginsburg’s late-career dissents, often from opinions with which Alito agreed. 2007’s Gonzales V. Carhart, which chipped away at abortion rights; 2010’s Citizens United V. FEC, which essentially equated corporations with people and drastically altered campaign finance regulations; 2011’s Connick V. Thompson, which denied financial recompense to a Black man who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. It’s not Mock’s intention to allow any criticism to seep into Ruth, but this feting of civility with people whose actively damaging politics make them your enemy remains surreal. Also strange is how the documentary incorporates a quote from Ginsburg in which she says she hopes to be remembered for contributing to a “better world,” but does not directly acknowledge her passing in September 2020, or feature individuals speaking on how her legacy might be furthered or reassessed after her death.

Ultimately, Ruth is unwilling to offer anything for its central subject other than praise, and by doing so, falls into the same fawning that the film incorporates through interviews with biographers Irin Carmon and Shana Khizhnik, the latter of whom created the extremely popular Notorious RBG Tumblr, which the women adapted together into a book. Exalting RBG has become an industry of its own, furthered by forces uniformly willing to transform an individual into a symbol, from Kate McKinnon doing a body-locking impression on Saturday Night Live to countless Etsy store proprietors who screen-print a picture of Ginsburg wearing Notorious B.I.G.’s plastic crown on a T-shirt and pocket $40 for their efforts. For those people, Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words will serve as a reaffirmation of their loyalty to the woman they varyingly call a “rock star” and “icon.” But viewers looking for a portrait of Ginsburg that digs deeper than pop culture deification won’t find much new to consider in Ruth.