In filmmaking — and film festivals — timing is everything.
Just ask Susan Smoluchowski, executive director of the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul, or Betsy West, co-director of “RBG” — a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice-turned-unlikely-pop-culture-icon — that will open the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on April 12.
Neither could have anticipated that a national cultural conversation about gender discrimination and sexual harassment would coincide with the festival’s “Women & Film” program and a movie about Ginsburg’s groundbreaking victories for equality.
“The timing is extraordinary,” said West, who will be in Minneapolis for the film’s screening. “When we started this film, I don’t think we had any idea that the Justice Ginsburg story would have the response that it’s finding now with the #MeToo movement and the #TimesUp movement.”
Smoluchowski’s planning began before the movements hit full force, too. And while this year’s program reflects the festival’s enduring endeavor to feature women filmmakers, the timing is especially right for the focus. In fact, of the 158 feature-length films, 57 are directed by women, a much higher percentage than Hollywood’s output.
Indeed, it’s fortunate that the 37th annual festival, which runs from April 12-28 (the Star Tribune is a sponsor), is international, since the U.S. is “playing a lot of catch-up” on this issue, said Smoluchowski.
“We have made a very determined effort to search out films by women directors,” Smoluchowski said, adding: “For all the reasons you might imagine, women have been underrepresented.”
Ginsburg certainly need not imagine.
She lived it in the legal world, unable to find a top-notch job despite a sterling record at Cornell, Colombia and Harvard universities. In fact, West said, Ginsburg didn’t “have an opportunity for a #MeToo moment because she wasn’t getting those jobs.”
So the earnest Ginsburg, heeding her mother’s advice that anger is a waste of time, did something about it. For herself, and most meaningfully for women worldwide, by winning landmark cases she argued before the very court she now serves on.
Among the most compelling components of RBG the woman and “RBG” the film is the duality of Ginsburg’s legal legacy and her latent celebrity.
While she has become a “Saturday Night Live” character on its “Weekend Update” segment, the immediate meme most will associate with Ginsburg is that of the Notorious RBG, complete with a ubiquitous image seen on T-shirts that’s given Ginsburg a higher profile than most if not all of her fellow justices.
But while the moniker channels the Notorious B.I.G., Ginsburg’s style is anything but brash rapper. Rather, her quiet, concise, persuasive rhetoric (backed up by a work ethic that’s, well, notorious) is what has made her so essential to advancing equity for all.
Indeed, what’s really revealing isn’t the RGB notoriety but the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg story of how a shy, brilliant Brooklyn girl grew up to become a jurisprudence giant transforming women’s rights — and women’s lives — through transcendent legal victories.
“The intention was to inform people about the role that RBG played in changing the world for American women,” West said. “Certainly, her status as a rock star helped us with this film, helped us with telling her story, because people have an immediate identification with her, they know about the ‘Notorious RBG.’ But you know the story is much deeper than that.”
Deeper, and more profound.
But both components of Ginsburg’s journey really resonate with people, Smoluchowski said. She screened “RBG” at this winter’s Sundance Film Festival and “I just loved laughing in that theater with the audience, I loved being on the verge of tears, and learning so much about this remarkable woman, especially at this moment that is fraught politically and otherwise.”
Once “RBG” was named the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival’s opener, both screenings sold out almost immediately. (“RBG” returns for a longer run at the Uptown Theater on May 4.)
Smoluchowski said that “RBG” resonated particularly well among young people. And evidently also with the 85-year-old Ginsburg herself. Of course, the justice wasn’t just another Sundance screener, but it was the first time she watched the film, West said.
“She was laughing, she pulled out a tissue, dabbed her eyes a few times,” and in response to an audience question proclaimed the film “marvelous,” West said.
Moviegoers aren’t likely to contest the justice’s judgment (few win any arguments with her, anyway).
Especially in today’s cultural context, which will likely change moviemaking and moviegoing.
“I hope that this movement and what is happening in this country — the silver lining may be that people will become more curious to see what other perspectives may be out there,” Smoluchowski said.
“It’s a moment of reflection and I hope a shift,” West said. “We’ve had a lot of these moments, but this one does feel pretty big.”
If so, some of the credit goes to Ginsburg, one of the country’s truly consequential advocates of equality.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.