Review: On The Basis of Sex (2018)

“A court ought not to be affected by the weather of the day, but will be by the climate of the era.” This quote is majestically said by Professor Freund in On The Basis of Sex right in the beginning and later repeated by the main character, Ruth, at crucial moments. It’s the central idea of the movie, and it guides the whole narrative. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a young woman full of initiative and hopes to change the world to one that is more equal and just, but no one will give her a chance or listen to her because she is a woman (and it’s the 50s). But about 15 years later, with the second wave of feminism raging on, she tries again – and succeeds. The world was ready – or more ready than before – to equality then.

It made me think about the #metoo movement: would it have been this big had it happened two decades ago? Probably not. The way it changed the world and humanity’s perception on consent was only possible because of the climate of the era – because of new ways of thinking that have been coming to light for decades now, maybe centuries, to culminate in what is now a global movement of epic proportions.

Anyway, back to On The Basis of Sex: the biopic tells Ruth’s story before she was appointed Supreme Court Justice in 1993. The story begins in 1956 when the character, played by British actor Felicity Jones (a fact that displeased Americans in general, which is understandable taking into account that the story is about an American hero), is starting her studies at Harvard Law School. She’s one of nine women who were admitted in the course that year, in the midst of 500 admitted men, something that puts her in a position of being constantly patronized and underestimated by fellow colleagues and professors.

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Ruth tries to find a job in law firms but is constantly rejected because of her gender (Jonathan Wenk / Focus Pictures)

When her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), gets diagnosed with testicular cancer and is unable to attend classes, she attends both his and her own, helping him graduate without delays. The movie glosses over this accomplishment a little bit, but I think it deserves way more attention than that. I mean, come on, she manages to study for -and excel at- her course, his course, and take care of him, their daughter and the house. She’s already a hero for that alone. Clap clap from the audience, please.

Martin, by the way, is the type of husband that seems nonexistant in that time and age: he supports her throughout the whole movie, often stepping away from the spotlight to grant it to her, never letting his ego speak louder than her ideals. In real life, they were married for 56 years, up until his passing in 2010. He survived testicular cancer even though his chances of survival were 5% – a dramatic twist solved so quickly and without ceremony that it left me wondering if it was really necessary in the movie in the first place.

After they move to New York, there’s a big jump in time: we are suddenly in the 70s, their daughter is a young feminist who adores Gloria Steinem and wants to spend her time marching and demanding for changes – a point of conflict for the aristocratic and poised Ruth. It is her daughter, though, that helps her realize that this is the right time to affect change: because the court will not be affected by the weather of the day but will by the climate of the era.

Martin, then a tax lawyer, helps her find the case that will be her first milestone in a career of social activism: Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey) was denied a tax deduction for hiring help when acting as the primary caregiver for his mother. The fact that he is a single male excludes him from any benefits – a discriminatory law based on gender. It bothered me at first that Ruth chose a case where a male was unjustly treated by the law because it seemed like she wouldn’t have been successful had the case been about a woman. But now I get it: indeed, she wouldn’t have been. The judges, all males, had to feel unwavering empathy, only possible for someone of their own sex, to accept setting up a precedent. Unfair but realistic. Unfortunately.

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Ruth’s supportive network consists mainly of her husband and their daughter (Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features)

This case allows Ruth to start a journey of social activism where her main goal is to change the laws that discriminate on the basis of sex. Laws that affect both men and women – laws that, believe it or not, said that men couldn’t be nurses and women couldn’t be pilots, among others. Online reviews complain about how cliche the narrative sometimes is, and there is no denying it, it’s true. But I don’t think this movie was made with originality in mind. The screenwriter, Daniel Stiepleman, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s nephew in real life and I believe his purpose in writing the movie was to tell Ruth’s story from a different angle: not focusing on her life achievements, but on how she got strong enough to pursue them. It complements, in a way, the documentary RBG, released a few months earlier and focused on her later career.

Directed by Mimi Leder, the movie has a nice and emotional conclusion. Maybe it won’t win an Oscar, but I left the cinema feeling inspired and ready to change the world too. Isn’t that the best outcome of an uplifting biopic?

Here’s the trailer in case you haven’t seen it yet:

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