Review: On the Basis of Sex

The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her fight against sexual discrimination is told in On the Basis of Sex. In 1956, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) was one of only nine women enrolled in the Harvard Law School, which she attended at the same time as her husband Marty (Armie Hammer). Fast forward to 1970 and Ruth has had settle for getting a job as a professor of Sexual Discrimination and the Law at Rutgers University, while Marty works as a tax lawyer. However, when Marty comes across a case discriminating a male caregiver, it provides Ruth with the chance set a new legal precedent over how both genders are represented by the law.

From director Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker) comes a biopic about the early years of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would eventually become a longstanding Supreme Court Justice. As a student at Harvard, Ruth had to put up with the passive aggressive sexism of Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), while also being ignored in lectures by Professor Ernest Brown (Stephen Root). Both would later become Ruth’s legal opponents, as she sets out to overturn over a hundred years of sexual discrimination in the law and finish the fight begun by her idol Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates).

On the Basis of Sex is a biopic that covers the first fifteen years in the career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The title of the film is in reference to a quote by Dorothy Kenyon asking “if law differentiates on the basis of sex, how will men and women become equal?” Indeed, much of the film is about is about Ruth Bader Ginsburg fighting back against a patriarchal male society that is trying to stick with “traditional” gender roles. There is a striking image in the opening moments of the film, which shows Ruth in a blue suit walking through a sea of men in grey. In fact, it almost seems for a while that Ruth is the only woman in Harvard Law, though it’s later revealed that there are eight other females in her class.

Taking advantage of a rare case showing sexual discrimination against a man, Ruth decides to join Marty on a tax case that could set a new precedent in how the law treats the different genders. However, with Ruth never having before argued a case in court, it results in even allies, such as Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU, to doubt her ability at being able to keep her composure in the courtroom.

On the Basis of Sex arrives as Ruth Bader Ginsberg celebrates her 25th year as a justice on the US Supreme Court and this biopic follows on the heels of the documentary RBG, which was released earlier this year. Felicity Jones has some large shoes to fill, playing such a cult feminist figure, however she does a surprisingly good job with the role. There is also a brief, yet memorable performance by Kathy Bates as civil liberties lawyer 
Dorothy Kenyon. Armie Hammer does a fine job as Ruth’s husband Marty, even though its pretty typical for most of the roles that he plays. However, the film does have a standout supporting performance by Cailee Spaeny (Bad Times at the El Royale) as Ruth’s teenage daughter Jane, who would go on to become a successful lawyer herself.

Overall, I would have to say that On the Basis of Sex makes for a good introduction to the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

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Sean Kelly Author

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described über-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).