The film On the Basis of Sex, a celebration of the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is inspiring, educational and thoroughly enjoyable.
The movie opens with a crowd of what appears to be all men – first year law students – parading in to be addressed by the school’s dean, all to the fitting tune “10,000 Men of Harvard.” Then, in the sea of feet clad in men’s dress shoes, the camera focuses on a high-heeled pair marching in their midst – the feet of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School class.
In the dean’s address to the students, he speaks of the students using only male pronouns, and it becomes clear that he does not believe that a woman has any place at Harvard Law School. Then, if there was any doubt in viewers’ minds about this fact, at a supposed welcome dinner for the nine women, the dean asks them to “report who [they] are, and why [they] are occupying a place that could have gone to a man.” To suppressed snickers from the other female students, Ruth Bader Ginsburg reports that her “husband is in the second-year class,” and she is at Harvard “to learn more about his work, so [she] can be a more patient and understanding wife.”
In contrast to this, it becomes apparent throughout the movie that Justice Ginsburg’s marriage to her husband Martin Ginsburg, portrayed by Armie Hammer, was profoundly modern for the time period. He was a tax lawyer, and unconditionally supportive of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s professional aspirations. In fact, he was the one who found her the court case that would become the climax of the movie.
The court case, which involved Charles Moritz, a man caring for his mother who was denied a caregiver’s tax deduction because he was not female, would ultimately be taken to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. In my opinion, though still enjoyable, the actual courtroom scenes were probably among the movie’s weakest, because the way they were portrayed seemed rather cliché. Ruth Bader Ginsburg stumbled severely during the oral argument, and then appeared to save the case in her rebuttal. In fact, Justice Ginsburg herself recalls that “[she] didn’t stumble at the outset.” However, enthusiasts of United States government and politics will certainly appreciate the numerous references to landmark Supreme Court cases sprinkled throughout the movie (I know I did).
Overall, it’s hard to condense a life into 120 minutes, and in my opinion, On the Basis of Sex did an excellent job. I am personally surprised that the movie only has a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While it may be true that the film offers a glorified, simplified version of Justice Ginsburg’s earlier years, we are, after all, looking back on history through a lens colored by the knowledge that the film’s heroine would become a leading litigator for gender equality, and then a member of the nation’s highest Court. The movie is not a comprehensive biography, nor do I think it was intended to be one. If the movie leaves the audience more curious than when they came, then in many ways, I think that is a victory.
I, for one, could not stop smiling for at least half the movie (“Is that an answer, Mrs. Ginsburg, or a filibuster?”), and watching On the Basis of Sex has only increased my curiosity and desire to learn more about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The film is currently showing at the Michigan Theater.