On the Basis of Sex (2018)
On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs.

Release Date: December 25th, 2018 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Mimi Leder Actors: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey

 


 

A

blue dress appears amid a sea of indistinguishable black suits; it’s 1956, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is one of only 9 women eligible to earn a degree at Harvard Law School. The exclusivity or the striking lack of women pursuing a career in this field is amplified through the visual metaphor; and from the first spoken words, it’s evident that it’s not an absence of interest that drives this disparity. Women are simply not expected to become lawyers.

“What does it mean to be a Harvard man?” asks the old-fashioned dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), who upholds the playing field of stark inequality by belittling the select young women at every turn. He’s joined by Professor Brown (Stephen Root), who refuses to call upon Ruth when she raises her hand to answer a question; instead, he motions to her when he’s under the impression that she has a question of her own. Interestingly, both Griswold and Brown return toward the end, once again battling against Ginsburg’s stand, providing formidable enemies in a legal showdown.

Many times throughout, the objectionable sexism on display is glossed over with humor, which tends to only exacerbate the social adversities. Fortunately, as the film progresses, the laughs are derived from Ginsburg’s little wins over her male opponents, which are far more satisfying uses of wryness. Not so blithe, however, is the series of roadblocks she must overcome to fight for justice in a courtroom; when her husband, aspiring lawyer Marty (Armie Hammer), falls ill with testicular cancer, she must not only look after their baby, but also sit in during all of his classes. By 1959, she’s excelled in every way imaginable, yet it’s still not enough to land her a career with a decent law firm. Solely because she’s a woman, no one will hire her – and she’s further debased by questions about when she’ll have her next child, or how jealous wives might view her, or how she’ll surely be busy with bake sales. “Women are too emotional to be good lawyers.”

The discrimination is infuriating. Yet her refusal to capitulate to misguided pressures is astounding. Of all the role models for the never-ending women’s rights movement, RBG is one of the greatest. “On the Basis of Sex” doesn’t always do justice to the justice, however, as it presents her historical biography as something of a paint-by-numbers routine – with montages of her schooling, dates flashing onscreen to skip over chunks of her career, an overstuffed afterward that diminishes the dominance of the smaller portion of her life being examined, and plenty of manufactured suspense to spice up courtroom proceedings. The technical qualities of this movie are standard at best; here, style and structure aren’t concerned with fancy artistry. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to dismiss the potency of the central persona – a woman with no shortage of power, persistence, and inspiration.

By the time the main case of this biography takes hold (set in the ‘70s), it’s downright gripping to witness the legality of gender-based discrimination, the attack against it (through a roundabout issue involving Section 214’s tax deduction secernment against a man), and Ginsburg’s squaring off against three elderly male judges. Even with cinematic embellishments, her accomplishments are staggering, emboldened by familial drama with her teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), and the continual hurdles of arguing her views to dismissive or belligerent men. Smartly, the film is never once about politics; instead, it’s about the changing times, a need to recognize the shortcomings or disregarded intentions of laws, and the passionate fight for equality. It may not be a nail-biter, but the subject matter is educational, captivating, and entertaining. “We’ll see you in court!”

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10