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Filmmaker reflects on justice and the woman who stood up for it

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This article is part of our latest Special Report on Fine Arts and Exhibitions, on how artistic institutions are helping the public discover new options for the future.


Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen created the 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary film “RBG” about the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We invited Ms. West to share her thoughts on the exhibit at the New-York Historical Society.

For someone known throughout her first eight decades as studious, shy, and withdrawn, and who described her personality as “sober,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg took a kick in her stardom later in life. “I’m 84 and everyone wants to take a picture with me,” she told us while filming “RBG”.

Her life has been explored across all platforms: film, television, opera, publishing, and she is now the subject of an informative, witty, and moving exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “

Based on the eponymous bestseller by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, the exhibit was originally hosted by the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. Two years ago, during his exhibition in Philadelphia, Justice stood up and listened to his favorite opera selections played on a radio console in the reimagined living room of his childhood apartment in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.

She had promised to come to the historical society as well. Today, just over a year after her death at 87 from pancreatic cancer, the exhibit is a poignant reminder of Justice Ginsburg’s life and a chance to reflect on her legacy, at both substantial and controversial.

At the start of the exhibit, a panel titled “Just a few of the things women couldn’t do in the 1930s and 1940s” reminds us of what the world was like for American women. It’s a long list that includes the inability to get a credit card without the permission of a husband or male relative, or to get pregnant without threatening to lose your job, or wearing pants. on the floor of the US Senate.

This all started to change after Ms Ginsburg, the litigator, won lawsuits in the 1970s to ensure equal rights for women, and Judge Ginsburg delivered the majority opinion in 1996, overturning the policy. all-male admission program from the Virginia Military Institute.

On audio stations throughout the exhibit, you can hear his firm and steady voice making legal arguments or expressing opinions in these cases.

The interactive approach and whimsical graphics reflect the spirit of Ms Carmon and Ms Knizhnik’s book, combining clear explanations of legal issues with the story of Judge Ginsburg’s journey to becoming an icon.

For the New York exhibit, curators added a video wall featuring a map and photographs of her training and favorite locations in New York City. There’s his eighth-grade intellectual essay on the recently formed United Nations Charter; official portraits of Judges Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor on loan from the National Gallery; the bright green costume we filmed her wearing as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in her hilarious speaking role at the Washington State Opera; and a tattoo by artist Ari Richter celebrating the late celebrity who made RBG a family acronym.

Notorious RBG’s fame and nickname was sparked by Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. She wrote that the decision to remove surveillance from states with a history of voter suppression is like “pulling out your umbrella in a rainstorm because you don’t get wet.”

The metaphor went viral and predicted the current voting rights crisis.

And so, as the court became more and more conservative, Justice Ginsburg took on the role of grand dissenter. This exhibit includes dissent she wrote last year from her hospital bed in a case that expanded the ability of organizations to deny their employees contraceptive insurance coverage.

I especially like the whimsical drawing of the judges meeting on the teleconference for this case which features Judge Ginsburg speaking forcefully into the phone she holds with one hand while pumping iron with the other.

Justice lent the artifacts from the exhibition: a dress, a crop and a giant whip that belonged to her husband and expert chef, Marty. The replica of his desk contains family photos and a snapshot of Judge Ginsburg sitting on an elephant behind his friend and ideological rival Judge Antonin Scalia.

Of course, there is another elephant in the room which is not directly addressed by the exhibition: the posthumous anger expressed by some of those who wonder why she did not get off the bench when the pace was right. .

Should Justice Ginsburg have anticipated the partisan turn our national policy took that, among other things, undermined the Supreme Court confirmation process? Should she have retired in 2014, when she was 81, and when President Obama could have secured her replacement in the Senate? All legitimate questions, but given what she’s accomplished, it’s hard for many admirers to share the outrage.

I found it impossible to be at the historical society and not be sad about the death of Judge Ginsburg and think about what would happen if. What if she had lived long enough – a few more months – to be replaced by a justice aligned with her broad interpretation of human rights, the right to vote and issues of social justice?

What if his deathbed wish – not to be replaced until a new president is installed – had been granted? And what will the court do to erode the progress she fought so hard for?

Yet, as you browse this vibrant exhibit, it’s also impossible not to be deeply moved by the optimism and brilliance of this hardworking and determined person who has done so much to improve our world. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has surely earned her place in history: first as the legal architect of the modern women’s movement, then – whether in the majority or in dissent – as a judicial writer for the ages. .

Ms. West and Ms. Cohen’s latest films are “My name is Pauli Murray” and “Julia”.


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