RBG fought the good fight long before joining the Supreme Court
Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
On the Basis of Sex
Opens Jan. 11
There is a scene in On the Basis of Sex that tells you all you need to know about this movie. A 30-something Ruth Bader Ginsburg observes two dudes catcalling her teenage daughter. Unfazed, the girl shames them for their behavior. As she reunites with her mother, the notorious RBG welcomes her approvingly, then goes on a tirade about how her daughter’s generation isn’t afraid to clapback and how inspiring it is to see.
Yes, On the Basis of Sex is not subtle. A biopic on the US Supreme Court Justice, it has the good sense to focus on the defining moment in her career.
That’s not to say we aren’t treated to episodes of RBG (Felicity Jones) dealing with sexism in academia and the workforce. We are introduced to her as one of the few female law students at Harvard in 1956. Obviously brilliant, she handles both her academic workload and additional challenges such as a toddler at home and a husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), going through chemotherapy.
It’s no surprise that as an 85-year old, she barely took a day off from her court duties after recent cancer-related surgery.
Despite her extraordinary mind and will, Ruth fails to land a job as a litigator and ends up teaching law at Rutgers. She languishes there for seven years until an opportunity to tackle sex discrimination materializes. By taking the case of a man who has been denied a tax break as caregiver (a task considered “for women”), she sees an opportunity to establish a legal precedent to later use to pursue gender equality.
On the Basis of Sex is at its best when diving into the legalese of sex discrimination. RBG’s life’s work has been rooting out sex-based inequalities, a mission rewarded in 1993 when Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court. To compare Ruth to party-boy-who-got-lucky Brett Kavanaugh underscores the film’s motivation.
For all the trust director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) places in the audience to digest the legal fireworks, every other aspect of RBG’s life is treated broadly. Her husband is a saint, her teachers at Harvard are chauvinists, and her daughter acts out due to lack of attention. Alongside her drive, Felicity Jones conveys a modicum of prickliness. Her desire for justice and devotion to Martin prevent her from becoming unlikeable, though, more Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) than Tracy Flick (Election).
On the Basis of Sex coasts on the target audience’s goodwill towards RBG (hard not to love an octogenarian who stands against reactionary forces despite failing health). For a far more satisfying portrait of the liberal icon, check out the documentary RBG where the Justice plays herself.