Making a feature documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a prize that Emmy-winning New York filmmaker Betsy West had pursued for ages. The best and worst moment of the process arrived together three years ago when West and co-director Julie Cohen brought the idea to the workaholic jurist, then 82, who replied, “Not yet.”
Nevertheless, they persisted. Their recently released documentary “RBG” portrays her in a way that may remind some viewers of mothers and grandmothers who have championed women’s rights for decades.
It chronicles the associate justice’s private life alongside her long battle against gender discrimination. It shows how admirers on social media have elevated Ginsburg’s message, making her a resonant icon on rebellious tattoos and T-shirts and arguably the best-recognized member of the nation’s highest court.
West was in the area in mid-April to introduce her documentary at the opening night of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. In a conversation before the screening, she said she became drawn to the idea of profiling Ginsburg after interviewing her for a 2013 documentary about the American women’s movement across the 20th century.
“By 2015 Justice Ginsburg’s fame was rising because of the very stirring dissents that she had started to issue,” she said. “Julie and I thought there are lots of interesting stories here, nobody’s done a documentary about it, and it should be us.”
When they received Ginsburg’s “Not yet” response, “We were initially disappointed, but we thought ‘Not yet is not no.’ So we kept after it. We wanted intimate access, but we didn’t ask for it right away.”
Talking to Ginsburg’s colleagues, family and friends, they began gathering background material. With her office’s permission they filmed her at conferences, semi-public events and at her regular evenings at the opera, waiting until she could schedule them for personal access in the summer of 2017.
Working for 20 years at ABC and CBS producing the news programs “Nightline,” “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours,” West had interviewed President Bill Clinton, Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev and South African anti-apartheid activist Winnie Mandela, but she felt a bit jittery about proposing a 90-minute documentary to Ginsburg.
“It’s more nerve-racking,” she said. “It can’t just be a rehash of things people already know. You have to make it special, get access from the person and find something to reveal.”
“We asked her if we could film her in her office and at home, and we asked her if we could film her working out at her gym” to capture her light weightlifting and famed 20-in-a-row pushups. “I was so nervous to ask her, I think my voice was a little whisper. She paused for a minute and said, ‘Yes, I think that would be possible.’ That was kind of cool.”
West called making the documentary “a great opportunity because all these millennial women, and women of my generation, love the image of a tiny, seemingly frail older woman who is speaking truth to power. That’s what the appeal is. Plus the ‘Saturday Night Live’ parody which, as her son says, is not at all like Justice Ginsburg, so that makes it very funny.
“We realized that here was this audience that reveres her image, considers her something of a badass. And we had an opportunity to tell this full story that they don’t know.”