On The Basis of Sex: A Call to Action from 50 Years Ago | Review

by - Tuesday, November 27, 2018


Perhaps it's because the legendary New Yorker turned 85 this year or maybe it's the growing popularity of Kate McKinnon's SNL impersonation but it's most probably because Ruth Bader Ginsburg's story of fighting through the adversity of discrimination of sex still thrives today in 2018.

On The Basis of Sex is not dissimilar to a history lesson but it's one that's on a loop. One where we see minor progression whilst simultaneously setting ourselves back 30 years. The film is chilling in a sense that these remarks are not always aloud but are instead hidden in the detail.

Ginsburg was the subject of Betsy West and Julie Cohen's RBG documentary that premiered at Sundance earlier this year and now we can add Mimi Leder's On The Basis of Sex to the stories coming to the big screen centred on the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Felicity Jones leads as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Armie Hammer plays alongside her as Marty Ginsburg, her husband whom she was married to for 56 years before he died of cancer in 2010. The two bought the relationship alive in a way that didn't feel overly romanticised and instead captured the essence of the iconic couple. They shone as partners, best friends and co-workers but it's debatable that the real chemistry came alive when Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf, a long term friend of RBG and legal director of ACLU, challenged her at a "rehearsal" trial for the case the film is centred around. The two bounced off each other well and their friendship felt like one that had been thriving off screen for years previously.

The opening sequence is memorable for the sea of businessmen in their black suits marching their way into Harvard Law School for their first day. Ruth shines in a blue dress, the only female in the crowd before we see her identifying the other women. I believe it was mentioned there were only 9 in a pretty uncomfortable dinner party held later at the Dean's home. He requested each woman introduce herself and her reason for "taking a spot from a man" at Harvard. I'd love to know if this was fabricated because it's shockingly unbelievable whilst simultaneously being completely and utterly believable.


On The Basis of Sex is home to a few small visual aids, clichés and some clunky dialogue coming from Daniel Stiepleman’s debut feature screenplay. A scene that stands out in highlighting this comes from Ruth’s daughter, Jane Ginsburg. After being catcalled on the street by construction workers she shouts “you kiss your mother with that mouth, asshole?” before turning back to Ruth to say “you can’t let boys talk to you like that, mom”. It’s used to highlight the action of the teens in the 70s, the way they took to the streets to fight for what’s right but there are some other scenes in the film that do this better. It’s also meant to be a heartwarming mother/daughter moment amidst the often strained relationship but it didn’t feel true to life and felt out of place in the otherwise free-flowing narrative. 

The film does, however, handle an abundance of themes with care, perhaps the most prominent being how a story from 40+ years ago still aligns with today. It speaks to Trump's America without even needing to name him. In fact, the majority bulk of the movie is set in the 1970s, a time period where Donald Trump was sued by the US Department of Justice for racial discrimination. 

There were some pretty jarring lines throughout coming from the multiple authoritative male figures and it will never fail to astound me that less than 100 years ago women couldn't do certain things, including attend Harvard and other prestigious institutions. RBG's quick quips, my favourite being "Actually what I'm doing now I learned at Columbia" said to her misogynist professor who congratulated her on finding use for her Harvard education, earned laughs and aided Felicity Jones in her pursuit of playing the trailblazing personality of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

I think the film speaks wonderfully to the time period we are living in, the story feels contemporary and urgent. We need reminding that Ruth Bader Ginsburg may have set forth a precedent all these years ago but it's our responsibility to uphold it. The line that resonated the hardest was "it's not a privilege, it's a cage and these laws are the bars" it sits deep and carries the rest of the film right to the last moment where we see the real RBG take the steps of the Supreme Court.

Mimi Leder's direction is meant to uplift and while it does feel this way, it also feels like a call to action. A reminder of where we came from and how far we still have to go.


On The Basis of Sex hits UK cinemas from 22nd February 2019.

Until next time

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