Even More Notorious

'Notorious RBG' Documentary Is Surprise Box Office Hit in America

Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary draws audience sizes normally associated with superheroes, not Supreme Court justices

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg participating in a photo shoot with her fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in Washington, June 2017.
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

A documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become the surprise box office hit of the summer movie season in the United States.

"RBG" is now rubbing shoulders with the likes of "Black Panther," "A Quiet Place" and "Rampage" in the U.S. top 10 box office charts – not bad for a low-budget labor of love about the longest-serving Jewish justice in the Supreme Court's history.

The film took in about $1 million over the weekend, which is about $60 million less than the number one film, "Avengers: Infinity War." But box office analyst Jeff Bock told trade magazine Variety that "it’s almost unheard of to see a [documentary] perform this well in summer blockbuster season. For the documentaries to hit $1 million, it’s like a regular film hitting $100 million.”

Ginsburg, 85, has become an unlikely cultural hero in recent years, earning the nickname "Notorious RBG" and inspiring countless online memes. She has even been featured on "Saturday Night Live," and in the documentary even offers a critique of Kate McKinnon's performance of her on the comedy show. She has served on the Supreme Court since 1993.

Another box office analyst, Paul Dergarbedian, told Variety that all the plaudits for the film's success must go to Ginsburg. "When it comes to a blockbuster, it's more about the concept than a star. When a documentary is named after you, all the star power lies with the star of the piece. It really is resting on her," he said. 

Last November, the Genesis Prize Foundation awarded Ginsburg its first ever lifetime achievement award. It noted her "groundbreaking legal work in the field of civil liberties and women's rights" in its announcement. Ginsburg is still expected to attend the awards ceremony later this year after actress Natalie Portman, recipient of the foundation's main prize, boycotted the event. 

The foundation called her "an outstanding daughter of the Jewish people who made an enduring contribution to human civilization, who is an example of talent and achievement and who is committed to bettering the world."

The documentary, by directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, has been a critical as well as commercial hit. It is currently enjoying a 93 percent approval rating on movie aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.

Entertainment Weekly gave "RBG" an A-, with critic Leah Greenblatt calling it "an unapologetic valentine to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but a sharp and spiky one too – a celebration of the scrunchie-wearing octogenarian not just as a pop-culture folk hero and millennial meme but as a wife, a warrior, and a true iconoclast, famed for her fierce legal mind and the cutting wit of her dissenting opinions."

New York magazine was equally effusive, noting that the film's talking heads "are affectionate bordering on worshipful." David Edelstein wrote that "both the film and the 'notorious' figure at its center are the best imaginable retaliation to mansplaining."

Ginsburg's prominence in the #MeToo movement is also explored, with IndieWire writing that the documentary is "understandably interested in driving home just how fully she fought back sexism at every stage of her professional life."

Kate Erbland adds, though, that "what might be most inspiring about Ginsburg – and 'RBG,' which is as rooted in the present as possible – is how she’s continued to hammer away at her dreams and her desires, even when buffeted back by forces she can’t control. Asked when she’ll leave the bench, she’s clear: when she can no longer give it her full passion and fire. 'RBG' makes it clear that that day isn’t coming any time soon."

LA Times critic Kenneth Turan notes that the film "has cast a wide net in terms of interviews, talking to everyone from children and grandchildren to childhood friends who remember her lack of interest in small talk to current personal trainer Bryant Johnson who admiringly says the justice is 'like a cyborg.'

"Best of all is the time spent with Ginsburg herself, who as a subject is both eloquent and candid," he adds. "And it's not just that we hear her speak; her language is so powerful and incisive it feels like are actually watching her think."

Not everyone was so impressed, though. Writing for Slate, Keith Watson slams the film's "relentlessly superficial approach." He writes: "Less a probing study of one of the towering figures of contemporary jurisprudence than a feature-length extension of the 'Notorious RBG' meme, Julie Cohen and Betsy West's hagiographic documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg provides few insights into the Supreme Court Justice's legal mind."

Dergarbedian, the box office analyst, concludes that the documentary is reaping the benefits of this more woke time. "Wherever you were two years ago, no matter what side you are on, you probably weren't as politically aware as you are now," he told Variety. "Whether you agree with her or not, [Ginsburg] was a trendsetter. She was a pioneer. The interest of these filmmakers in her couldn't have come together at a more perfect time."