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On the Basis of Sex

February 22, 2019

For the last few years, Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life has been the focus of documentaries galore. The 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice has been a figurehead for feminism since she began her law practice. “On the Basis of Sex” follows Ginsberg through her first legal case and the beginnings of her studies into sex discrimination. 

The movie begins in 1956 with Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) attending her welcome lecture to Harvard, being one of nine women in the class. After her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ginsberg attends his classes as well as her own, all while caring for their daughter Jane.  

The film skips ahead to 1970 where, after being denied jobs at a dozen law firms, Ginsberg had become a professor teaching a class on sex discrimination. This is when she picks up her first case with her husband- a Denver man hiring a nurse to care for his elderly mother was being denied the tax rights granted to women who need to hire care givers. Ginsberg claimed this was discrimination on the basis of sex. 

One may be worried that, with all the law references, you need to have passed the Bar Exam to understand what’s going on. However, these references subtly explain themselves, and the specifics won’t make or break your theater experience.  

Even if legal dramas aren’t your thing, “On the Basis of Sex” is beautiful and gripping. The cinematography captures emotion that doesn’t need to be spoken. It’s used to highlight how unique Ginsberg was in her field. The opening scene is specifically gorgeous; a sea of gray and black-suited men is broken only by RBG in a blue dress as the Harvard fight song, “Ten-Thousand Men of Harvard,” plays. Similar scenes highlight Ginsberg’s femininity in her male-dominated world of law. 

The score is equally astounding, but perhaps more so, the lack thereof. All scenes in the Ginsberg apartment are backed by soft records of the decade. But, when the words are what matters most, the background is silent. Ginsberg’s biggest monologue, the rebuttal at the climax of the court hearing, is accompanied by silence. This is also used to highlight her individuality; as she walks to the podium, the only noise is the clicking of her high heels, possibly the only heels in the room.  

One of the most important aspects of “On the Basis of Sex” is be the accuracy of the events. Luckily for the reputation of the film, the screenwriter, Daniel Stiepleman, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s nephew. When he asked her about how the film should be made, RBG told him to get the law right, and get her husband right. For the most part, it was accurate even down to the specific patronizing question the Dean of Harvard asked the nine women in law school.  

Of course, changes had to be made. “On the Basis of Sex” portrays Ginsberg as flustered and easily overexcited. This isn’t quite an accurate portrayal of RBG, but it may have been necessary to create a character arc. Ginsberg needed to flub the first part of her case so she could redeem herself in the rebuttal. In reality, RBG never messed up the case; she made her point very clearly in the beginning and there was never even a rebuttal. 

“On the Basis of Sex” is a life-changing film for the women of today. By the final shot, there were tears in the eyes of half the theater. I was expecting someone to start clapping at the end. This film made me proud- it made me want to go to D.C. and rally for the rights that were given to me by women like Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I believe it can do that for anyone.  

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