Reel Reviews | On the Basis of Sex

by Monica Hayes

Despite being discriminated against because she was a woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg rose to become one of the most respected litigators of our time.  Director Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex tells the story of the eldest U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

On the Basis of Sex (OBOS) opens up in 1956, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is one of nine women enrolled out of five hundred men accepted into Harvard Law School.  Critical of the woman being accepted, Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterson) welcome address states what it means to be a “Harvard Man.” To add insult to injury, Griswold invites the women to dinner at this home.  While at dinner, he asks each female student to introduce themselves, and state why they deserved to be at Harvard when their spot could have gone to a more deserving man.  After watching Griswold’s responses to her fellow classmates, Ruth stood up and said: “My husband is a 2L, and I wanted to know a little more about his work.”  That remark set the tone of the rest of her time at Harvard Law.

Ruth quickly rose to the top of her class. When Marty (Armie Hammer) was unable to attend classes due to a medical emergency, Ruth kept them both on track by attending classes for both of them at the same time and taking care of baby Jane (Cailee Spaeny).  When Marty takes a job in New York, Ruth transferred Columbia Law to finish her third year. While there, she became the first woman to be on two law reviews (Harvard and Columbia), and in 1959 she graduated at the top of her class.

Despite her many accomplishments, she faced condescending and sexist attitudes of her professors, peers, and eventually potential employers.  She was unable to obtain a job as an attorney because she at that time, woman were only seen as teachers, or nurses, or caregivers and not as attorneys.  She ended up becoming a professor at Rutgers Law teaching sex discrimination after the only minority professor (a black male) left.

 In the ’70s when the times of protest were at its peak, Ruth felt frustrated in her position and wanted to make a difference.  Marty handed her what seemed to be a boring tax code case.  After reading it she realizes that the tax code discriminated against men.  Ruth, Marty and with the help of fellow ACLU friend and national legal director, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) appealed his case to the tenth circuit and history was made. 

Director Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex is the second film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The first, RBG, a documentary by Julie Cohen and Betsy West that debuted at Sundance earlier this year.  It chronicled her journey to become one of the fiercest advocates of gender equality and women’s rights of our time and her pursuit to change state and federal laws on legalized sex discrimination.  OBOS did an excellent job at giving audiences a small glimpse of the two cases that started Ginsburg’s legal career that leads her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter and eventually leads to her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton.

Jones’ portrayal of RBG’s resilience to the bold in your face male chauvinism oozes perfection.  In the film, oftentimes RBG would not verbally disagree or challenge her male counterparts but her facial expressions showed her anger – in particular, her side eye.  Jones brings RBG’s strong-willed, never give up and never let them see you sweat attitude to the screen.  Hammer’s portrayal of Marty Ginsburg is the perfect complement.  He is the laid back, supportive husband who understands Ruth.  He understood that his wife was just as smart as he was, if not smarter, but he did not feel emasculated.  In fact, he embraced her and loves her all the more.

Writer Daniel Stiepleman, who just so happens to be RBG’s nephew, does an excellent job of bringing his aunt and her struggles to the big screen.  Not every detail could not be given, but the small glimpse we are given is outstanding.  One aspect of the story that could have been explored deeper was the relationship between Ruth and Jane.  There are scenes where a teenaged Jane challenges her mother’s motives for just sitting on the sidelines and not doing something more.  It leaves you to wonder, just how much influence did Jane have over her mother’s actions. 

Overall, On the Basis of Sex is not just a must stand in line all night to see the movie, but a damn good one. RBG is in her own right a champion of gender equality and women’s rights, a living legend, and real-life superhero. Who knows, it could just inspire the next RBG.

Grade B+