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In ‘RBG,’ Ruth Bader Ginsburg looks back on a life spent working for equality

The documentary "RBG" is a look at perhaps the most unlikely rock star Washington has ever seen: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Tracing her roots, education and career, it's her early and continuing fight for gender equality that winds through the film. Jeffrey Brown talks with directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen.

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  • John Yang:

    Finally tonight, she is largely known for issuing stinging dissents from the Supreme Court bench.

    But a new documentary, out today in select theaters, provides an intimate and rare look inside the life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

    Jeffrey Brown has that.

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a look at perhaps the most unlikely rock star Washington's ever seen.

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    I am 84 years old, and everyone wants to take a picture with me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The new documentary "RBG" follows the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her Brooklyn roots, a legal education, then rare for a woman, at Harvard and Columbia, her husband, also a prominent attorney, who supported her rise every step of the way, and, most of all, he early and continuing fight for gender equality.

    That theme winds throughout the film, including at her 1993 confirmation hearing, after her selection by President Bill Clinton.

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    In my lifetime, I expect to see three, four, perhaps even more women on the high court bench, women not shaped from the same mold, but of different complexions.

    I surely wouldn't be in this room today without the determined efforts of men and women who kept dreams of equal citizenship alive.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And the rest is a history that continues to this day.

    Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen join me now.

    Welcome to you.

  • Betsy West:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, you do make much of this unexpected cultural rock star. Is that what attracted you to her in the first place?

  • Betsy West:

    Well, Julie and I had both interviewed Justice Ginsburg for previous projects, so, in 2015, when we noticed the Notorious RBG just exploding on the Internet, we realized there was an opportunity to tell much more.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A play, of course, on the rapper, right?

  • Betsy West:

    The rapper Notorious B.I.G.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Betsy West:

    But we knew that there's so much more to her story.

    Back in the 1970s, as a young lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued a series of cases that changed the world for American women. And we thought this was a story and an opportunity that needed to be told.

  • Julie Cohen:

    People are on the one hand so excited by her, but, actually, she's got this amazing history that isn't widely known.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Julie Cohen:

    She was sort of the legal side of the women's rights battle that Gloria Steinem was fighting out on the streets, and yet hadn't attained that same level of fame.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I want to show a little clip from the film.

    This is one of her arguments before the Supreme Court, which is again part of her story, right? She was appearing before the court, and we hear the voice of then Chief William Rehnquist.

    So let's take a look.

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    Men and women are persons of equal dignity, and they should count equally before the law.

  • William Rehnquist:

    You won't settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar, then?

  • Question:

    When they would say things like this, how did you respond?

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    Well, never in anger, as my mother told me. That would have been self-defeating.

    Always as an opportunity to teach. I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn't think sex discrimination existed. Well, one of the things I tried to plant in their minds was, think about how you would like the world to be for your daughters and granddaughters.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A couple of stunning lines in there, right? Justice Rehnquist talking about Susan B. Anthony.

  • Betsy West:

    Just joking.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Joking, yes.

  • Betsy West:

    Here she is making a serious constitutional argument, and he's just tossing off this joke.

    I mean, we found a number of instances of this kind of, you know, really blatant sexism. And you can't believe that the justices would say this.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. But then Justice Ginsburg now with this line, "I felt like a kindergarten teacher."

    That was — wow.

    (CROSSTALK)

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Julie Cohen:

    Right.

    What's amazing, even listening to her voice back then — and we have so much of it in the film — is how much this young lawyer is able to keep her composure in a situation that really could be a lot — can be quite intimidating for a lot of lawyers.

    And now, when she's looking back on it, she kind of explains why. She was going to use the opportunity not to be offended and not to get all bristly about it, but to educate.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She is, of course, a liberal icon at this point in a court that has moved more and more conservative, a famous friendship with Antonin Scalia, the archconservative.

    But her role has become more writing dissents, right?

  • Betsy West:

    Yes. She tells us in the movie that she would prefer to be writing majority opinions.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Any justice would.

  • Betsy West:

    Any justice would to be making the law of the land. But, if necessary, she will write in dissent.

    And she writes very clear, striking prose. That is one of the reasons why people have been so attracted to her.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She got in one public mishap with candidate Donald Trump, when she criticized him, which was a little unusual for a justice, wasn't it?

  • Julie Cohen:

    Absolutely.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And for her, yes.

  • Julie Cohen:

    Yes, absolutely.

    A number of court watchers were surprised to hear her criticizing then candidate Trump at a time when most of the nation didn't expect that he would be elected president. Conservatives criticized her, but liberals criticized her as well, and ultimately not long after, Justice Ginsburg said that the best response from her about Donald Trump would have been to say nothing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, she realized that.

  • Julie Cohen:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Supreme Court justices are sort of famously mysterious and hidden, not public figures.

    This is a largely warm look at her with her family. We see these long hours she keeps. We see the physical workouts, right, where I learned that she watches the "NewsHour" while she's working out.

  • Betsy West:

    Well, yes, absolutely.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, hi. Hello, Justice Ginsburg, right?

  • Betsy West:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And keep lifting.

  • Betsy West:

    Yes, shout out to her. When we interviewed her children, we were asking her whether or not she's seen the parody of her on "Saturday Night Live."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Actress:

    You can't get rid of me. Yes, yes, yes, yes.

  • Betsy West:

    And they said, we don't think so. She doesn't really watch television, except for the "NewsHour" when she's working out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That was nice.

    She is 85, right?

  • Julie Cohen:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You show her being questioned about — because a lot of people wondered, should she have retired? Does she wish she had retired when President Obama was still president?

  • Betsy West:

    Well, she has answered this that, first of all, President Obama did have an opportunity to nominate a justice. And that didn't work out so well, so there's no guarantee that she would have been replaced by his nominee.

    And, secondly, she objects to the idea that you necessarily have to go out with the same party that put you in. She says, look, I will do this job as long as I'm capable of doing it full steam. And from everything we saw, she still is capable.

  • Julie Cohen:

    An energy level like you wouldn't believe.

  • Betsy West:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes?

  • Betsy West:

    We were chasing her around. And we were sometimes exhausted by her travel schedule. You know, it's extraordinary.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She's still keeping those long hours you were showing.

  • Julie Cohen:

    Absolutely. Works long hours into the night and has a strikingly sharp memory for cases even that she argued in the '70s.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the new documentary is "RBG."

    Betsy West, Julie Cohen, thank you both very much.

  • Julie Cohen:

    Thank you.

  • Betsy West:

    Thank you, Jeff.

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