Those on the outside looking in – and seeking the rights freely accorded those on the inside – need advocates to argue their case. Taking on such tasks can indeed be an uphill battle, too. But, with a well-reasoned strategy, patience, and a calm, clear voice, breakthroughs are possible, as many have discovered over the past half century, thanks in large part to the efforts of a remarkable woman, the subject of the new documentary feature, “RBG” (web site, trailer).
Since 1980, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“RBG”) has left quite a mark on the U.S. judicial landscape, first in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and then in the U.S. Supreme Court. In that time, she has played a pivotal role in joining the majority on a number of key decisions, as well as in penning numerous blistering dissents as part of a vocal minority. But what’s less known is the role that she undertook as a lawyer in the time leading up to her appointments to the bench, a period in which she quietly but significantly reshaped many aspects of everyday life for those seeking equal rights.
In particular, based on the victories of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, RBG employed a similar approach in tackling the women’s rights issues of the 1970s. Having acted as a self-described “kindergarten teacher” to a judicial bench occupied by an all-male, largely white panel of Supreme Court justices, Ginsburg calmly but clearly drew attention to the inherent discrimination against women in such areas as equal pay and benefits, frequently invoking the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. She used the term “kindergarten teacher” to describe her role, because she believed that she was providing the justices with a basic education into the existence of institutional (and often legally sanctioned) gender-based discrimination, an issue of which they had little to no awareness. Through measured, carefully delivered arguments in a number of cases, Ginsburg showed the unaware justices what it meant to be on the short end of the stick.
What’s more, to avoid being labeled a partisan feminist, RBG employed a fair, balanced approach to fulfilling her objective, not only in terms of the nature of her arguments, but also in terms of the types of cases she took on. In one suit, she represented a widower who was denied Social Security survivor benefits simply because he was a man, something to which widows were unreservedly entitled to upon the deaths of their husbands. By taking on this case, she demonstrated that fairness is fairness, regardless of gender, a core element of her approach in seeking equal rights for everyone, no matter what their sex.
Ginsburg’s success in these cases came about in large part from the lessons on her upbringing. Having been raised by a mother who taught her not to shout to make her point, RBG employed this strategy in her court arguments. As seen by her five wins in six cases before the Supreme Court, the approach obviously worked.
Ginsburg also believed in achieving results one step at a time – slow, steady progress made incrementally toward the ultimate goal. She learned this from observing the victories in the civil rights movement and believed that the same tactic would work in securing equal rights for women. Based on her track record in legal wins, as well as her subsequent court appointments, it would seem this strategy worked as well, too.
If you were to ask Ginsburg what helped her the most, however, she would say that it was the unwavering support she received from her adoring late husband, Martin, depicted in the film through archive footage dating back to their courtship days when they were undergraduates at Cornell University. In excerpts from Ginsburg’s testimony at her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, she credits her success to Martin, a man quite unusual for his generation in that he recognized her as much for her intellect as he did for her looks. Throughout her career, he supported her in all of her undertakings, even placing his own work life in a secondary position when necessary to help her advance. For his part, Martin saw the need for gender equality long before many of his peers and continually encouraged RBG to advance the cause, doing whatever he could to provide assistance and support.
RBG was fervent about the plight of women in part because she could relate to the burden of responsibility often placed upon them, especially those who sought to be wives and mothers while seeking to build careers. She experienced some of this herself while in law school; in addition to attending to her own studies, she was the mother of small children and cared for Martin while he battled a rare form of cancer at a time when he was trying to complete his own legal studies. For women to take on such huge responsibilities and receive second-class treatment was patently unacceptable and needed to be corrected.
Of course, Ginsburg’s life is not now and never has been all about career and responsibility. As the film shows, she’s an avid opera lover, having even appeared in some performances herself, as well as a strong patron of the arts. She enjoys the company of family, including her children and grandchildren. And, having experienced her own health challenges, she’s also an ardent fan of physical fitness to keep herself strong. Not bad for an 85-year-old who still works tirelessly at her job.
What’s more, RBG has demonstrated that it’s possible to rise above the great polarization affecting the country these days. This is illustrated through archival footage depicting her profound friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. While Ginsburg and Scalia were known for being ideologically miles apart, she also made it clear that such philosophical differences needn’t be a barrier to friendship, as was very much the case with this seemingly mismatched odd couple. That, as much as anything, is a lesson many of us could stand to learn from these days.
Despite a slight tendency to gush about its subject, this informative, briskly paced documentary presents an in-depth look at the public and private life of this remarkable woman. Through interviews with Ginsburg, life-long friends, family members, peers, journalists and the politicians who helped shape her career, as well as a variety of archive footage and audio recordings, the film presents a balanced package of information that both enlightens and entertains. For those who are unfamiliar with her many accomplishments, this is must-see viewing.
An old saying maintains that one will catch more flies with honey than with dung. So, in an age where there’s plenty of that substance that so readily sticks to fans freely flying about, it’s comforting to know that there are still reasoned voices out there that can make their points known and build consensus without resorting to unbridled anger or becoming the embodiment of overblown bluster. RBG is one such person, and, no matter how much one agrees or disagrees with her ideologically, we’re all better off for having her in our presence. Her brand of calming, informed argument – even in dissent – is something we need more of if we hope to avoid slipping further into social and judicial chaos. But, even more than that, she presents us with viewpoints that get us to reconsider our views and expand the scope of our sense of inclusiveness in society. And we can probably never have enough of that.
A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.
Seeking Justice from Behind Bars
Seeking justice is sometimes an unbelievably slow and difficult process. Bureaucratic procedures, sloppy investigative work and officials unwilling to admit making mistakes all contribute to needlessly complicating matters. The frustration can be exasperating for everyone involved, especially those who have been wrongfully convicted. Such is the case in the fact-based biographical drama “Crown Heights,” now available on DVD and video on demand (web site, trailer).
In 1980, 18-year-old Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) was arrested, convicted and incarcerated for a murder he did not commit in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The young immigrant from Trinidad was not on the scene of the crime, nor did he know the victim. And the evidence used to convict him largely came from the coerced testimony of unreliable juvenile witnesses who essentially said anything to stop the relentless intimidating interrogation they were subjected to by NYPD detectives.
To make matters worse, when put on trial, Warner and co-defendant Anthony Gibson (Luke Forbes) were not represented by adequate legal counsel. And, when sentenced, they received different prison terms. Because he was a juvenile at the time of the shooting, Gibson, the perpetrator who actually pulled the trigger, was sentenced to 9 years to life, while Warner, an adult and who was characterized as a mere accomplice to the crime, earned 15 years to life – all for an offense in which he played no part.
Once behind bars, Warner had trouble adjusting to his surroundings, frequently having run-ins with brutal, harassing guards. One such encounter even landed him in solitary confinement for two years, it seemed like he would never escape his circumstances. That was not for a want of trying, though; appeals were launched on his behalf, but they were dismissed or bungled by inept, ill-prepared attorneys.
The pain of Warner’s circumstances weighed heavily not only on him, but also on those who cared about him, most notably his childhood friend, Carl “KC” King (Nnamdi Asomugha), and his onetime romantic interest, Antoinette (Natalie Paul). They organized fundraisers for Colin’s appeals and pursued every available channel to seek his freedom. Carl even went so far as to place his own family’s financial future in jeopardy to help out his friend, firmly convinced in his innocence and the need to be released from prison.
After more than 20 years behind bars, Warner finally caught a break. Thanks to his undying diligence, Carl secured the services of a new attorney, William Robedee (Bill Camp), who could clearly see the errors made in Colin’s prosecution, defense and previous appeals. He believed he could successfully make a case to get Warner out of jail and his conviction overturned. At last, it seemed, justice would finally be done.
“Crown Heights” effectively illustrates how the truth will out, no matter how long it takes and how difficult the process may be. Justice can be done, even when the deck seems heavily stacked against those seeking it. But, thanks to perseverance and the will to succeed, the proof will eventually surface to make such outcomes possible. Indeed, a little bit of conviction can go a long way toward overturning one that’s been wrongfully implemented.
This overlooked gem from 2017 spent only a short time in theaters, but it’s well worth the viewing time. The heartfelt performances by Stanfield and Asomugha, who earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best supporting actor, are truly outstanding, effectively depicting the hope, determination, frustration and heartache that each of them endured throughout this ordeal. The film also captures the claustrophobic feeling of incarceration, as well as the deplorable, demoralizing conditions of prison life, a true hell for anyone but especially so for the falsely convicted – of whom, the film pointedly notes, there are more than 120,000 such individuals who are erroneously behind bars in the U.S. today.
When justice is elusive, there may be a natural tendency to lash out and seek retribution at any cost, an outcome that’s more vengeance than justice. But such rash measures seldom produce the hoped-for results, especially when up against a rigid, slow-moving system. By having faith that the truth will surface and persistently pursuing the means to elevate it from the depths of obscurity, it is possible to secure the prized results – even when they’re seemingly nowhere to be seen.
A full review is available by clicking here.
What does it mean to be an enigma? Artists have been posing that question about themselves and their work for ages, but few have carried that off as successfully as one of the most inventive and singularly creative musicians of the past half century, a talent profiled in the new documentary “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” (web site, trailer).
When one is asked to describe the androgynous Jamaican-born singer, model and actress Grace Jones, it’s hard to come up with a definitive description. The genre-defying artist and performer is often portrayed as wild, passionate, fierce and unpredictable. Yet, as this new documentary feature shows, there are other, lesser-known sides to Amazing Grace.
Through this offering, viewers are let in on scenes of Jones as mother, daughter, sister, lover, grandmother and businesswoman. These everyday life situations, presented without narration and filmed like home movies, are intercut with concert performance footage, showing the stark contrast between her outrageous on-stage presence and the off-stage life she leads when not wowing audiences with her innovative music, gender-bending outfits and simple but mesmerizing stage settings.
Those everyday settings cover a lot of ground, too, including journeys to Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, London and New York for various modeling, performance and business matters, as well as an extended visit to her native Jamaica to reconnect with her roots and family. Out of makeup and costume, we see a very different Grace Jones, one who might as well be one of our neighbors and not the international superstar for which she’s better known.
As natural and at home as this film seeks to be, however, it’s not without its shortcomings. In some ways, the film feels “padded,” including considerable incidental (and largely insignificant) material that’s so superfluous and mundane that it could have easily been chopped out. And, while there are some insights into her background and upbringing, the movie sometimes feels lacking when it comes to defining its subject. There’s little back story into her storied past, both personally and professionally, and viewers find out little about the history of her musical, modeling and acting careers. While some of these holes in the story may be attributable to Jones’s inherent enigmatic nature, it’s a little frustrating that we don’t quite get to know her as well as we probably would like.
As a concert film, however, this offering rocks. Unlike many such works, which are plagued by shaky camera work and poor sound quality, there’s none of that here. The production values are top-notch, and they allow Grace to shine as the larger-than-life star that she truly is. And she shows it off well, too, something all of us probably wish we’ll be able to do as we approach 70.
Mysteries captivate most of us, and Grace Jones is a prime example of one. We may not come away from this film with as many answers as we might hope for, but we still get to see this human conundrum in full flower. And what a beauty she is.
Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.