Photo and Story by Emily Blalock / Contributing Writer
As part of National Women’s History Month, students and community members attended a screening of “RBG,” a documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on Monday night in the Student Union Ballroom.
There was a screening at 2 p.m., as well as one at 6 p.m., which was followed by a Q&A session with the film’s co-director Julie Cohen at 7:30 p.m.
The event was coordinated by the June Anderson Center for Women and Nontraditional Students, the National Women’s History Month Committee, MTSU’s Recording Industry Department and MTSU’s Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, as a part of National Women’s History Month.
Cohen’s Academy-Award nominated film, which she produced with Betsy West, first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. It highlights the struggles and achievements that Ginsburg has faced throughout her life.
Beverly Keel, chair of the Recording Industry Department, led the Q&A session following the documentary before opening the floor to questions from the audience.
“I’m very excited to introduce my friend of 30 years,” Keel began. “She has accomplished so much. Three-time Emmy winner Julie Cohen has directed and produced nine feature documentaries, including ‘RBG’, ‘The Sturgeon Queens’, ‘I Live to Sing,’ which won the 2014 New York Emmy Award for Best Arts Program.”
Cohen worked as a staff producer for NBC for nine years before starting her own production company, Better Than Fiction.
Cohen and West got the idea for the “RBG” documentary in 2015.
“There’s this really unusual situation of like (Ginsburg) in her 80’s just clearly becoming a rock star,” Cohen said. “We want to tell this bigger, richer story.”
Cohen was excited that so many people have learned about Ginsburg’s life through her documentary.
“People responded very emotionally to Justice Ginsburg’s story,” she said. “I think the amazing thing in why this was such a good opportunity to have a filmmaking subject was like here’s a person that actually has a pretty famous high-profile persona, and yet she has this whole life story that most of the public, including some of her biggest fans, just weren’t familiar with.”
The film focused on specific legal cases that were important to Ginsburg’s career.
“One of our goals with this was to make the legal stuff really understandable to non-lawyers without dumbing it down so much that actual lawyers would say, ‘You got it wrong,'” Cohen said.
Ginsburg was the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. The film begins by telling the story of her early life, highlighting the obstacles she faced, including the death of her mother when she was 17.
In 1956, she was one of nine women in a Harvard Law School class of over 500 men. She recalls in an interview in the film how she felt like everyone was watching he, and that if she failed it would make all women look bad.
While attending school, she also took care of her husband, Martin, who was battling cancer, as well as their toddler Jane.
She graduated from Colombia University at the top of her class but struggled to find an office to work in that would hire a woman. However, she eventually brought significant sex-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court throughout the 1970s with the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, winning five of the six cases she argued.
Some of the subjects of these cases she worked were interviewed for the film, including a man who fought for social security benefits for his child after his wife died during childbirth and a female service member who wanted the housing allowance that was granted to male service members.
The film also focused on the love story between Ginsburg and her husband, Martin Ginsburg.
“I think it was kind of an unexpected twist, in a film that’s primarily about a tough-minded feminist,” Cohen explained. “We did think that made our movie more fun, but I also think there’s kind of a political point to that too. One of the things that’s kind of been used as a knock on feminists and people advocating and women advocating for our own rights is like, ‘Oh, feminists are unattractive, they’re humorless, they’re non-sexy, they’re not romantic,’ and you know, (Ginsburg’s) story really dispels that.”
In addition to talking about Ginsburg’s accomplishments, Cohen explained to the audience the journalistic process of making the film.
“She was letting us bring cameras into places where no other cameras were coming,” she said.
For example, they were granted access to film one of Ginsburg’s hour-long workouts.
“We had our crew all set up, we were in there with Bryant Johnson, the trainer, and then she walks in wearing her little sweatpants and her ‘Super Diva’ sweatshirt,” Cohen recalled with a laugh. “It was just so moving to see, and you know there’s just something about the determination that she puts into that that I think really echoes the very fierce determination that she’s put into everything that she’s done in her whole life.”
Another primary goal of the film was to address issues of representation.
“At first glance, she seems, in some ways, like an unlikely hero to become a women’s advocate because she was reserved and quiet and polite. She didn’t march or demonstrate, but she used her unique skills to make a difference,” Keel commented.
Cohen agreed that this is part of what makes Ginsburg’s story so powerful.
“(Ginsburg) is someone who actually has a very strong sense of herself. There’s a lot of ways in which she’s not like other people, and she’s had a good sense of how to play to her strengths,” she stated. “There’s always been a sense that like whether it’s a documentary or a narrative fiction film, that like women are only interesting to the extent that they’re super young and super hot. And the idea that this is a woman in her ’80s who’s kind of quiet and is known primarily for her intellect can really draw people to put their money down and come into a theater is cool and hopefully will have some impact on the kind of women characters that we’re willing to talk about.”
In addition to highlighting her accomplishments, the film addressed how Ginsburg has transformed into a pop-culture icon in recent years.
Jaimie Elowsky, a psychology major and senior at MTSU, has seen the film multiple times.
“I love it so much. I think it’s a really important message to people who don’t understand the history of women’s oppression. Not many people know about the struggle of women’s rights or how recently we’ve gained rights. It’s just incredible,” Elowsky said. “That’s awesome that she made a film like this. I think that this is information that everyone really needs to know.”
Elowsky is impressed by Ginsburg’s dedication to defending women and minority groups throughout her career.
“I just think that she’s amazing. It makes me wonder like, where would we be, right? If it wasn’t for some of the laws or some of the cases that she’d won, that changed the course of our laws, that allowed us to have more equality? These are important. I don’t really care too much about law. I’m not a law student, I’m not going to law school, but the laws are actually what allow us as individuals and society to have rights. If they’re not fair, then it gets in the way of having equality. And that was such a big deal for women throughout history,” she explained.
After the event, students were invited to take pictures with Cohen. Free water bottles and shirts were also provided for audience members.
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