School may be out for the summer, but you can still get in a lesson or two on American history thanks to two recent documentaries: RBG and Bobby Kennedy for President.
RBG documents the life and legal career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It follows the Notorious RBG from her childhood into college, where she met her husband of over fifty years, Marty Ginsburg. From there, it tracks their unconventionally egalitarian marriage and RBG’s journey from a highly-skilled young lawyer struggling to get good work in a male-dominated industry to one arguing sex discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court. Interspersed with interviews with friends and family and fun footage of her workouts, the documentary focuses primarily on her work for women’s legal rights, but also features a beautiful love story and tracks the rise of the Notorious RBG meme.
I think the documentary does a wonderful job of finding balance. There is a marked effort to explain Ginsburg’s legal career in the historical context surrounding her various successes. The documentary acknowledges some mistakes and brings in voices of those who ideologically disagree with Ginsburg, but still respect her work as a justice.
The film is also beautifully edited, using pop culture, RBG’s now-iconic workouts, and Marty Ginsburg’s sense of humor to break up sections focused on the legal work. Doing so balances out Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s reserved and serious demeanor (which so many people comment on in the film), adding levity and action to an otherwise calm story. The filmmakers also do a great job of working around the fact that cameras are not allowed in the Supreme Court. By using text superimposed over a photo of the court and audio of oral arguments, the film is able to bring in the drama of the court cases even though there is not natural visual component.
RBG is playing in theaters now and is a wonderful portrait of a life devoted to hard work and solid principles. What I enjoyed even more, however, is the crash course it gives in Supreme Court cases and its depiction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s shyness being a key part of who she is, not a hindrance or something to overcome. RBG runs 98 minutes and is rated PG. It was directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.
Now on Netflix, you can also enjoy a four part documentary series about the political career of another famous person known by his initials: RFK. Bobby Kennedy for President focuses primarily on the career of Robert Kennedy between his brother’s campaign for the presidency and the aftermath of his own assassination. Along the way, it delves into some of the highly-charged problems of the times including Civil Rights, Vietnam, the War on Poverty, and Kennedy’s evolving positions on each of them.
Although, as with RBG, there is a certain degree of hero worship involved, I was impressed by how the documentary manages to unpack some of the nuances of these issues, RFK’s stance, and the critiques he faced, without losing the thread of the story. The series draws heavily on archival footage to show the Kennedy brothers as they were in family moments and in the news. The editing is generous with the speeches, so that the audience actually gets a sense of what Kennedy was like in front of a crowd and what his message was. Where others might trim and sound bite, this series lets the ideas unfold a bit more. People who were close to Kennedy in the Justice Department, his senate office, and his presidential campaign are also showcased, providing insight into what it was like to work with Kennedy. Harry Belafonte, John Lewis, and Dolores Huerta provide moving interviews about Kennedy’s work with Civil Rights and worker’s rights groups. To me, the most moving part of the series is the moment when John Lewis breaks down recounting what it was like to lose Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy in such quick succession. Like RBG, Bobby Kennedy for President offers plenty to learn. This documentary, however, carries a bigger emotional punch.
Bobby Kennedy for President was directed by Dawn Porter. It runs 245 minutes and is rated TV-MA. (I’m assuming because of the assassinations, Jim Crow violence, and Vietnam.)
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