YIN/YANG REVIEWS: RBG / Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
Connor Macgregor may call himself the “Notorious One.” And of course Biggie Smalls still holds the moniker years after his death. But after watching RBG, you may wonder if they can hold a candle to the impact the “Notorious RBG” has made over the past 85 years.
This documentary follows the life and impact of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice and staunch advocate for women’s rights and equality. Her story is told mostly chronologically, beginning briefly with her Bronx upbringing and quickly on to her trials and tribulations being one of the few female students at Harvard, and later Columbia, Law School. It comes perhaps as no surprise to hear varied descriptions of her preternatural work ethic, her impressive perseverance, or her unparalleled drive. But it might be surprising to discover how the woman who won 5 out of 6 discrimination cases before the Supreme Court and who doggedly campaigned for equal rights, did so as a shy, soft-spoken, and by all accounts markedly reserved introvert.
Bader Ginsburg is an odd and fascinating dichotomy. Tiny and scrawny of body, yet knocks out solid pushups and hoists weights with a personal trainer on a daily basis. Reserved, even-tempered and with never a hostile word, yet scathing in her dissensions and passionate pursuit of righteousness. To the larger world, she’s the courageous champion of the disenfranchised, at home she’s just “bubbe” to her grandchildren and “Kikki” to her childhood friends. These opposing elements are never displayed as a negative, but really as one of the sources of her greatness. Her ability to be kind and respectful, even compromising, while refusing to sacrifice her morality is what has made her a beloved and respected voice on both sides of the aisle.
This polarity within her is reflected in the film no better than in the descriptions of her relationship with two particular members of the opposite sex. Politically, her unlikely friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the staunchest conservatives ever to serve on the Supreme Court, is as unbelievable a development as any fictional twist. On paper and by all accounts, Bader Ginsburg and Scalia should have been the bitterest of enemies, as their opposing views on some of the most critical issues of our time would seemingly cause nothing short of endless enmity between any two average folk. Yet, political differences aside, they were the closest of friends, going on talk shows and vacations together (who would have thought one of the cutest pictures in the film would be the two of them riding an elephant in India together!). Their ability—almost unfathomable in the current climate—to vehemently disagree on some of their core beliefs, yet maintain a civil and respectful discourse is worthy of both study and awe.
But perhaps her greatest opposite came in the form of her most perfect counterpart. The film explores her beautiful 50+ year relationship with her doting husband, Marty Ginsburg, from their setup in college until his death in 2010.
Both hardworking, talented lawyers, they partnered as equals at a time when such notions were considered almost laughable. When Marty was struck with cancer early on in their marriage, Ruth somehow managed to care for him, their children, and continue her education, often leading to but a few hours of sleep per night for years on end. Later, upon Marty’s recovery, he continued to support Ruth’s career, following wherever her path led, and using his affable personality to tirelessly campaign for her nomination to the Supreme Court. The pair represented everything a marriage should be: true love, devotion, partnership, mutual respect—another in the long list of reasons to admire Ruth’s incredible life.
What might be the most significant point to the film is not so much what Bader Ginsburg has done for the country, and the world, up to this point, but how much we continue to need her, and how gravely her loss will be felt when that sorrowful time comes. As with her life in general, her presence on the Court represents a two-fold philosophy: the progressive elements of a female point of view, of a trend forward in equality for all, in a break from the restrictions and fears of the past, but also a representation of old-school values of respectful discourse, traditional civility, and a near-forgotten willingness to reach across the aisle to engage rather than obstruct.
The divide between those in this country who support and oppose the current actions in government is deep, but it seems universal that we need to come together far more than we need to push each other further apart. Bader Ginsburg has given us a template for how to both stick to your convictions and still exude civility and respect to your opponents. I personally hope we can find a way back to that before it’s too late. Bader Ginsburg will remain here to help for as long as she is able, and films like this are not just enjoyable glimpses into a remarkable person’s life, but a course study in the best of what we can be. I look forward to the reveal of the next Ruth Bader Ginsburg out there, but in the meantime, I hope that perhaps we can all find a way to be as “notorious” as the incredible, indomitable RBG.
YANG: Won't You Be My Neighbor?
I cried at least three separate times watching this documentary.
And you what? That’s ok, because Mr. Rogers spent nearly his entire life trying to convince the world, both young and old, that feelings are important, legitimate, and essential to the full human experience. It is the denial of that idea, and the disconnection to worlds outside and in, that is the greatest hindrance to our ability to come together in love, peace, and respect.
Mr. Fred Mcfeely Rogers has been telling us this for the past 50 years, but somehow it seems more relevant today than ever. And that’s one of the strengths of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a loving and honest tribute to, and exploration behind, the man we all grew up watching.
The film chronicles Mr. Rogers’ life in near totality, but really begins at his decision to leave seminary and use the new medium of television to spread his message of love to the masses. While it makes sense in retrospect, I had no idea about his intense religious devotion. Yet what impressed me most was that he never actually pressed any religion-specific agenda. Instead, he chose to focus on the core message and values present not only in his own, but represented throughout most of the world’s faiths. And I think it was his universal understanding and respect that allowed for universal acceptance across race, creed, and sex for generations of children across the United States, and ultimately the world.
The film does a magnificent job of expressing Mr. Rogers’ struggle to keep that message on the air, whether that was funding from Congress or simply his own self-doubts. And while it certainly paints the picture of an outwardly perfect human being, it doesn’t shy away from his all-too-human frailties. Recalling Fred’s parental nature, his children reveal him to be every bit the sometimes moody, occasionally strict father you’d expect from any Joe.
And while he preached tolerance and acceptance to those at home, he sadly demanded Dr. Francois S. Clemmons (Officer Clemmons on the show) keep his homosexuality secret, even barring him from attending gay establishments. All in all then, we see a complete picture of the man as both very much the person we see on screen, yet with the same human failings as anyone else.
But his humanity serves to strengthen, not diminish, his message. It’s easy for a messiah to call down from on high, but having someone who struggles to live the ideals of his convictions makes us think we can do it too. And really, that’s the overall message of this film: that we can all do better, be better, and love better.
He didn’t just tell us how, he showed us. At a time when African-Americans were shunned, Mr. Rogers shared his pool with Officer Clemmons. When Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Rogers explained the horror as only he could. From Vietnam to 9/11, he took something so unfathomable and made us reflect on what it meant to us as beings sharing this great Earth.
Mr. Rogers explains “Won’t you be my neighbor?” as an invitation, and that’s such a Mr. Rogers way of putting it. But I really think it’s a challenge. As in the 60’s when he started, we find ourselves in a country, and a world, divided along lines of race and politics and blame. And though he’s not here in body to help us heal, he’s still here in spirit, on our screens and in our hearts, telling us that it doesn’t have to be that way. That we can choose to be neighbors, friends, allies, if all we do is listen, love, and live with an open heart. And if we as adults find ourselves too embedded on our own ways to find the courage to change, then we can find hope, as Fred did, in our children. As long we impress upon them the values we seek, there is still hope.
The movie makes a point that while Mr. Rogers was indeed something special, he perhaps was not unique. There are many others out there offering up the same message. It could be me. It could be you. It could be anyone. But how can it be? The task seems insurmountable. It’s too much for one person, the divide is too great—maybe, maybe not. But the first step is the listen. The second is to rise to the challenge and ask others that same simple question that this beautiful man has been asking us for over 50 years.
Won’t you be my neighbor?