On the Basis of Sex - Movie Review by Jeff Mitchell

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‘On the Basis of Sex’ might be a good companion piece with ‘RBG’



Directed by:  Mimi Leder

Written by:  Daniel Steipleman

Starring:  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Jack Reynor, and Stephen Root


“On the Basis of Sex” – In Julie Cohen’s and Betsy West’s 2018 documentary “RBG” (3.5/4 stars), they cover a comprehensive history of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, including her childhood, collegiate years, marriage to Martin, legal work, and her views while sitting on the highest court in the land.  Cohen and West also film Justice Ginsburg’s workout routine, and all of this and more efficiently and miraculously fill a jam-packed 1-hour 38-minute runtime. 


It’s a fabulous big screen document that is chockfull of surprises, and the most valuable aspect is Justice Ginsburg’s work as a trial lawyer, as she became a paramount champion for equal rights during the 1970s, as evidenced by her quote of 19th century feminist forerunner Sarah Grimke:


“I ask no favor for my sex.  All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”


She blazed a trail to help ensure that both women and men are treated equally under the law, and director Mimi Leder’s feature film “On the Basis of Sex” – with Felicity Jones playing Ginsburg - mainly focuses on one specific trial, rather than the sweeping facts, figures and nuance of “RBG”. 


How does “On the Basis of Sex” fit with “RBG”?  It’s a companion piece, and there is nothing wrong with a competent feature film celebrating Justice Ginsburg’s life, but “RBG” conveys vastly more information and oceans of celebration, and it accomplishes this in less time than “On the Basis of Sex”.  Twenty-two minutes less.  


Leder’s movie, however, does convey the institutionally-sexist obstacles that Ginsburg and women in general – in any profession/facet of life – faced (or face).  The film begins in the mid-1950s during her first year of Harvard Law School.   As Ginsburg enters a Harvard hall, she is noticeably only one of three women out of the numerous rows of men that fill the place, and the numbers problem becomes exacerbated soon after.  Dean Griswold invites all the female law students to his home for dinner and asks them to justify their entrance to the school, because they are taking spots away from men.  Say what? 


If a dean spouted a similar statement in 2018, he or she would then quickly add, “Just kidding,” or “I’ll be filing my resignation now.”


Women certainly had a near-impossible climb to reach equal treatment under the law or simple common courtesy, so the film establishes a foundation for today’s audience and Ginsburg’s on-screen journey, including several career-doors slammed in her face.


She, however, finds a different path, and all directions point to a specific legal challenge that Ginsburg will take to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.  She and her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) accept this case for an important reason (that will not be named in this review). 


This is a landmark case, and it leads to future rulings that help protect people from discrimination “on the basis of sex.”


In addition to the aforementioned limited scope, Leder builds Ginsburg’s story arc in two ways.  One, she seemingly lands the entire weight of the women’s movement on her shoulders.  Two, the film presents Ginsburg as vastly inexperienced in the courtroom, and in the Tenth Circuit Court, she commits a sizable number of gaffs when presenting her case.


Whether these small blunders occurred or not in real life, this on-screen record of Ginsburg does not match the superhero persona shared in “RBG”.   Walking out of that film, most people rightfully believed that Ginsburg is pretty darn infallible and possibly indestructible.  She is known as the “Notorious RBG” in many circles, of course.


So, one could conclude that screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman included the undue pressure of 130 million women counting on her and several nervous courtroom mistakes to ensure that she overcomes a pair of obstacles for storytelling-sake.  Maybe not, however they feel dramatized and/or inconsistent with the perception of our black-robed hero. 


Nonetheless, “On the Basis of Sex” paints a sympathetic picture of women’s long journey to equality in the classroom and workplace, demonstrates Ruth’s and Martin’s devotion to one another and yes, features her limited height.  Ginsburg does not quite stand 5-feet 1-inch tall, so Jones’ height of 5 feet 3 inches is properly disparate to Hammer’s 6 feet 5 inches.  If anything, Leder can claim a bit of genius-casting, but at the end of the day, fans should see “On the Basis of Sex” before “RBG” or perhaps just watch the documentary twice.

(2.5/4 stars)


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.