Movie Review: "On The Basis of Sex"

“On The Basis of Sex” tells the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her challenging debut in the United States legal arena. For those who don’t know, Ginsburg is the second of four females to ever be appointed as Justice to the Supreme Court. She was sworn in under former president Bill Clinton in 1993, at 60 years of age.

Back to the movie, which delves into her early beginnings, starting with her first year at Harvard Law School. One of only nine women admitted to her class, Ruth confesses at a dean’s dinner party that she got into law to learn to be more patient and understanding of her husband Martin, ahead of her by one year at Harvard. Her response actually startled me. One would expect to hear an inspired story of how she’d dreamt of obliterating racial and gender discrimination ever since she was a precocious little child, or how passionate she was about the debating art form.

No, no. Ruth was piqued about her husband’s endeavors, and fortunately her smarts proved she was more than competent at excelling in her elected field. She ranked top of her class, even as she was raising her infant Jane, tending to a household, and attending Martin’s classes in tandem, as he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and sought recuperation at home.

Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School for her third and final year when her husband found work as a tax attorney in New York. She sought to preserve the family unit. Here we witness a woman who knows the paramount importance of family to vocation, an admirable quality feminists are often accused of lacking in their singular pursuit of empowerment and advancement.

British actress Felicity Jones plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On The Basis of Sex"

The petite mother of two goes on to land a spot on the faculty of Rutgers University, leading courses in gender discrimination as relates to the law, which eventually paved the way for her inaugural case. She and Martin, together with a prominent American Civil Liberties Union lawyer named Mel Wulf, served as co-counsels on a case where a male caregiver was denied a tax deduction in a rare case of discrimination against a man. They snatched an unlikely victory owing perhaps to Ruth’s powerful rebuttal, wherein she demonstrated that the country and culture have changed, irrespective of the law, and she urged the three judges to set a new precedent to accommodate this seeming “radical social change.”

While I thoroughly enjoyed watching “On The Basis of Sex” and appreciating Ruth’s humble foray into law, there were a few things that left more to be desired. The movie encapsulates quite some plot development, but just as we start to see Ruth get into her element and shine, it ends abruptly. To be sure, this production by no means spans her lifetime or even the prime of her career. Instead, the spotlight is on her early years and her dual roles of mother and professor turned lawyer.

Speaking of mother, Ruth and her daughter Jane have their share of friction. Jane is unmistakably more outspoken and fierce than her mother, although after butting heads, she complains to her father that her mother is a tyrant, constantly putting on haughty displays of her intelligence to the world. I never saw Ruth portrayed thus in the movie – on the contrary, her character is one we can sympathize with, totally relatable. She is a wonderful listener, she is adamantly supportive of her family, and she willingly accepts criticism. So that claim struck me as unfounded.

I’m not sure how many will agree with me that Martin Ginsburg is perhaps the unsung hero of this story. He persistently champions his wife’s accomplishments, coaxing her to be confident in her abilities and to follow her dreams relentlessly. He is gentle, offering constructive criticism, and never once condescends to her. In fact, he initially refused to serve as co-counsel alongside Ruth, because he believed she had everything it took to succeed single-handedly. I’d give the famous phrase a new spin: “behind every great woman is a great man,” for Martin embodies that brilliantly as Ruth’s loving advocate.

Ruth's husband Martin is played by the handsome Armie Hammer

At the close of the movie, we see the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg ascending the steps of the Supreme Court, which might be construed as her stamp of approval on this motion picture. I’m not certain how much of the movie is steeped in hard facts, but here is a movie that serves to remind us – for it is so easy to forget – how radically the world has changed in the past 50 years alone, how the realities of today which we find sacrosanct and unquestionable did not exist mere decades ago, and how much more we still have to go to truly achieve equality, regardless of the category.


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