Arts movie review

Fighting the good fight

‘On the Basis of Sex’ is an appreciative token to RBG’s humble beginnings

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) defends her place as a female student at Harvard Law School with intelligent quips in answer to the professor's proposed question.
Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features

On the Basis of Sex
Directed by Mimi Leder
Screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman
Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Chris Mulkey
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

In the mid-1950s, America still has not yet come around to the idea of the law protecting its civilians from discrimination on the basis of sex. Academia and the higher-paying job market are still run by rich white men, and Harvard Law School is no exception to this trend.

Now, imagine being one of nine women in a room full of said rich white men, all (or at least most) who believe you to be unworthy of a place among them. On the Basis of Sex begins with such a scene, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) notes her position during her first day at Harvard Law School. The film traces her journey from law student to professor and scrounging lawyer before coming to the primary focus of the film: the Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue case, which was one of the first successful cases to argue against a law that discriminated on the basis of gender.

From a plot standpoint, the biopic feels like a dedicated retelling of a page from Ruth’s life. In fact, Ruth’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, worked closely with her in order to ensure the authenticity of the screenplay.

One thing I particularly liked about the story was how it showed the evolving marital and familial dynamic between Ruth and her husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). At the start of the movie, the Ginsburgs have been married only a few years and are raising their baby girl. Trying to follow the gender stereotypes she was raised with while both parents attend Harvard Law School, Ruth primarily takes care of the household chores. It’s obviously shown, however, that Ruth’s cooking is quite bad, but she has more of a natural knack for being a great law student, which is more clearly demonstrated when she starts attending Martin’s classes on top of her own when he falls ill with cancer.

Fast-forward to 1970, and we see Martin working as a lawyer and Ruth stuck teaching as a professor. The family has moved from Boston to New York City. The Ginsburgs now have a son as well as a teenage daughter. However, the household roles have changed. Martin cooks all of the family’s meals. When a problem comes up with their children, Martin is the better mitigator. He is sensitive and empathetic and can connect to their children in a way that makes them listen, while Ruth’s bookish nature makes it harder for the children to appreciate her motherly lessons and love. In particular, I appreciate the portrayal of Martin as a loving, understanding father and husband. Too often, Hollywood tends to favor men who are stern, angry, and hypermasculine, so it is refreshing to see Armie Hammer — a handsome, strong man — play a man who is perceptive and willing to be wholly supportive of Ruth’s endeavors.

The Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue case thus further displays Ruth and Martin’s relationship, considering the two co-counsel the case on behalf of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey). The case also helps reflect Ruth’s need to change the law so that it can better represent the social climate of the times. When Ruth was at Harvard Law School in 1956, the dean (Sam Waterston) had the audacity to have a dinner with all of the female law students and ask them, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” In 1970, when Ruth is taking her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) home from school, Jane tells off two men who were trying to catcall her, and rather than scoffing at her as they might have done 20 years back, they back off and make no further attempts to grab the women’s attention. The latent sexism and microaggressions prevalent throughout the film even call forth the patterns we can witness in today’s world, making On the Basis of Sex a timely film.

From the genuine screenplay to the marvelous acting, On the Basis of Sex is a film that calls to attention an issue in America that we still face today. Even if the laws have changed, we must remember that we are still trying to adjust from centuries of prejudice, and that people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg have helped in expediting this shift. If you’re a fan of dedicated historical films or just a fan of Justice Ginsburg, you will not regret watching On the Basis of Sex.