On the Basis of Sex

Studio: Focus Features
Directed by Mimi Leder

Dec 28, 2018
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Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) is already married and with a child when she enters the old boys club known as Harvard Law School. Despite the palpable disdain accompanying her presence, she quickly proves more than formidable opposite her male classmates, obliterating them in debates and ascending past them in the class rankings. When her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), who is also a Harvard law student, is diagnosed with testicular cancer, instead of taking time off, she doubles her coursework by attending his classes. Her academic achievements, however, cannot secure post-grad work at top law firms, forcing her into a modest beginning as a professor at Rutgers Law School. This, however, proves short-lived as she learns of a case where a caretaker is denied funds because he is male. A case with such blatant gender discrimination (assuming a caretaker must be a woman) becomes the basis for Bader-Ginsberg’s strategy of dismantling sexism in the law, one case at a time.

On the Basis of Sex tries to be two things: an overview of the life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and an examination of a case that was formative in her career, impacting both ideology and strategy. These don’t run concurrent and feel divided into two parts, with the former, “biopic-ey” elements feeling generic and unnecessary. At least, unnecessary for the plot. You can’t fault screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman or director Mimi Leder for spending time on her early struggles and the way she overcame them—indeed, her backstory provides a refreshing contrast to a recent Supreme Court confirmation, reminding us that the formative experiences behind one of the most exclusive jobs in the country should be embraced, not excused away. But if the narrative is to show the scope of Bader-Ginsberg’s formation, certain choices feel arbitrary—why not start before law school, showing why she chose the field of law to be her battleground?

This aside, the narrative is clever in its approach to the relationship between Ruth and Martin. Though the Ginsbergs team up on the case, it’s ultimately Ruth who leads the fight with her handsome husband in the background, wearing the apron. Perhaps this wasn’t quite the dynamic in real life. Perhaps the part where Bader-Ginsberg’s sparring foes from Harvard end up opposing her on the case is more a case of dramatic symmetry than historical accuracy. On the Basis of Sex is not an historical document, but a dramatic film and one with shortcomings at that. But if you know little about Bader-Ginsberg, the film succeeds as a starting point in the history of an important Supreme Court Justice and a case that defined her.

Author rating: 6.5/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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January 4th 2019

why not start before law school, showing why she chose the field of law to be her battleground?