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‘On the Basis of Sex’ Highlights Gender Discrimination, Then and Now

Dir. Mimi Leder—4 STARS

'On the Basis of Sex' still
Felicity Jones stars in "On the Basis of Sex" (2018), directed by Mimi Leder.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s influence has extended well beyond the Supreme Court and into pop culture in the last few years, captured in “Notorious RBG” memes, comedic videos of her exercise routine, and PBS documentaries following her life story. Underlying all this is Ginsburg’s reputation as a feminist icon, a view that director Mimi Leder’s “On the Basis of Sex” continues to explore by shining a light on Ginsburg’s lesser known early career as a law student, professor, young attorney, and mother.

In the film, Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) begins her first day at Harvard Law School as she faces discrimination at every level and eventually takes on the first landmark cases defining gender discrimination. Reminders of inequity in and out of the courts are glaring: From being made the butt of a joke in a class of male peers to being told she is not fit for a position at a law firm to spare the feelings of other attorneys’ wives, Ginsburg faces gender discrimination in a number of ways. Even the number of scenes in which Jones is the only woman in the shot is telling.

The discussion of discrimination is at the heart of the film and impossible to miss or ignore, showing both how far society has come since the 1960s and how many gender norms remain. In fact, Ginsburg’s legal argument in the film depends on the notion that society has changed (in the 1970s). Thus, the legal precedent of upholding laws that treat men and women differently no longer applies, pointing to young people as signs of progress and hope for the future. This message is clearly aware of its modern cultural and political context. The constant visual and thematic reminders of inequality feel heavy-handed, but this does communicate how pervasive and unavoidable discrimination is for the women who experience it, particularly as male characters repeatedly deny its existence.

While the intent to illuminate discrimination and showcase the woman who fights against it is clear, the film has its ups and downs in execution. Much of the film is centered around Ginsburg’s case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, significant for the precedent it set by defending a man who suffered from legal discrimination in a niche tax code. Yet, it is actually Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), Ruth’s husband, who finds the case and essentially delivers it to her to appease her dissatisfaction with limited opportunity in a set up that seems to diminish Ruth’s agency. The film also falls into cliché territory with its antagonists: A group of old, powerful white men representing the government in the lawsuit serve as prototypical symbols of the “the institution.” Meanwhile, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the director of the ACLU, is a supposed civil rights champion who nonetheless rejects the notion that women’s rights or gender discrimination exists — a frustrating yet compelling figure who embodies complex historical perspectives on equality. His instructions for Ruth to smile more, stay in the background, and seem less “bitter” are infuriating, but only because they ring true to dialogue that persists today. Theroux’s character rides the line between antagonist and supporter, further illuminating the subtlety and universality of sexism.

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Additionally, family grounds the film — a compelling surprise given the expectation of a historical legal drama. Jones and Hammer deliver nuanced performances as a loving couple that form a team both at home and in the courtroom. Ruth and Marty’s family with their daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) ensures that the film maintains a sense of humanity and relatability that can often be lost in jargon and courtroom intrigue. The fascinating exploration of balance and equality in their marriage and generational feminist tensions in Ruth’s relationship with Jane are accessible while contributing to the film’s broader conversation. That being said, legal battles drive much of the film’s conflict, with an effective soundtrack, tight close-ups, and passionate argumentation generating tension and excitement. These features are well executed, although the constant close-ups can be a bit disconcerting, and audiences looking for a little more action and theatrics may be disappointed.

“On the Basis of Sex” is not necessarily groundbreaking, but its generally solid delivery and wonderful performances create a compelling ride. Fans of the courtroom drama or Ginsburg herself ought to give it a shot “on the basis” of the relatively unheard story it tells about the beginning of the Justice’s journey and of the battle for gender equality in the law.

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