It’s only fitting that Sundance Film Festival darling “RBG,” which hits theaters May 4 via Magnolia Pictures, was put together by female filmmakers stretching across multiple generations. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the documentary chronicles the life and career of octogenarian Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a driving force for equal rights in America.
“When you have this many women working together, there’s a certain type of trust and respect for each other, especially with this kind of subject matter,” says editor Carla Gutierrez, who sifted through hundreds of hours of archival footage and new material shot by cinematographer Claudia Raschke to shape the narrative. There’s a caseload of fascinating facts about the justice, from her undergrad days at Cornell, to her time at law school where she made the Harvard Law Review, to President Carter appointing her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia after noting a lack of women on the bench. “I’m always attracted to the details,” says Gutierrez, “and find that the more detail you get on a personal level, the more you have about the contextual stuff.”
The film centers on the landmark court cases against gender discrimination that Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, such as Frontiero v. Richardson, Califano v. Goldfarb and Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and intertwines her life with her late husband, to whom she attributes much of her success. Also included: her nomination to the high court by President Bill Clinton and her growing status as a cult hero among younger generations on the internet for her scathing dissents, often read from the bench, to the decisions of an increasingly right-leaning court.
Ginsburg embraces her status as the “Notorious RBG,” one cemented by the 2015 best-seller “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. She wears a sequined collar to show her disagreement with a majority opinion and acknowledges in the documentary that the moniker “came from Biggie” — the late rap artist the Notorious B.I.G.
“It was obvious we needed to present her the way people see her now — the idol that she is — but to also find the very personal moments, like the smile her husband gives her when she talks about him during the confirmation hearings. Those little moments we tried to hold on to and build around,” explains Gutierrez. “The draw for me while going through the footage was to give the viewers a personal experience.”
The music for the documentary blends hip-hop, opera and an original score by composer Miriam Cutler to inform Ginsburg’s journey. “Miriam pushed [things] to a new level,” Gutierrez says.
Looking back at the more than eight-month project, the editor points to a clear vision from Cohen and West as the reason for the film’s focused storytelling. Her own research didn’t hurt. “I didn’t know much about Ginsburg’s past before starting the documentary,” Gutierrez says, “and when I read about it for the first time, I felt much closer to the women’s movement than I ever felt before.”