“On the Basis of Sex” highlights RBG’s early days


Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features/TNS

Film still from “On the Basis of Sex.”

By Elizabeth Donnelly, Staff Writer

The new film “On the Basis of Sex” kicks off with a stern interrogation of the now-famous Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones). At a dinner party hosted by the dean of Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), asks her and the eight other women in her class to “report who you are, where you’re from and why you’re occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man.”

This scene is just the beginning of the blatant sexism Ginsburg must face throughout her life. The film is described as a biographical legal drama. It also stayed true to its message of female representation with its female director — a rarity in Hollywood — Mimi Leder. Leder is known for directing films such as “Pay It Forward” and “Deep Impact.”

Sexism is still present in the United States, including in the workplace — female leaders are often seen as bossy while male leaders are seen as assertive, and women are less likely to get promoted or hold higher positions in companies. “On the Basis of Sex” highlights the discrimination women faced in the 1950s to the 1970s in professional careers, which still carries on in many ways today.

Ginsburg had to deal with snide remarks from the dean and her professors and was consistently treated as being less significant than all of her male counterparts. She had to work twice as hard to prove her worth, which meant she had to power through any obstacle thrown at her, and perform above and beyond her peers.

This comes into play when her husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), falls ill. Not only is RBG a mother and a full-time student, but she must also be there for her husband, so much so as to attend his classes and take notes for him so that he could continue his education.

Jones does a satisfactory job at portraying the emotional hardships thrown at her character throughout the film, but her character traits were very shaky throughout the movie. For instance, her attempt at RBG’s Brooklyn accent throughout the film came off very patchy and was quite inconsistent.

Regardless of her shaky accent, her on-screen chemistry with Hammer was astounding. They complemented each other in a way that helped develop the story line and show the viewers their relationship dynamic.

Hammer really pulled off the role of a supporting husband through his gentle yet assertive mannerisms. Martin was always there for Ruth, especially when other men were trying to tear her down, and Hammer was able to portray this in a way that emphasized his role as her number-one supporter.

Time and time again viewers see RBG treated as inferior, only for her to rise to the occasion in the end. The most notable moment in the movie is the final drawn-out court scene — the culmination of all her work.

Everyone in the room is against her — the judges, the opposition and most of the audience. She only has her partners and her client on her side. This leads to her struggling to perform well at first, but over time she is able to put her thoughts together and emerge victorious.

While the film focused on Ginsburg’s origin story and therefore couldn’t focus on her entire career, how the key aspects of her career were played out at the end of the movie ultimately felt rushed. The ending scene contained short blurbs of her career highs, with clips of scenery and a voiceover playing with text displayed on the screen simultaneously. It was the ending of the movie, but it was easily distracting and certainly not the way one would expect RBG’s biggest accomplishments to be highlighted.

The main court battle in the movie was heavily dramatized, which made the biopic feel less realistic. It seemed as though the filmmakers couldn’t decide between making this movie a classic biopic versus a dramaticized and less informative film inspired by true events.

Another inconsistency throughout the film was the time line. The time skips between scenes often differed drastically in length, ranging from a few days to four years. It led to some confusion as to how far along the story was at certain points.

While the film did jump around quite a bit, it still was able to convey its main message. It showed the hardships women in the workforce had to face while trying to hold professional jobs once considered only for men. The acting was mostly solid, with Hammer truly excelling in his role as Martin Ginsburg. The on-screen chemistry between Hammer and Jones brought justice to the relationship the Ginsburg couple had in real life.

Despite the film’s flaws, it featured some very memorable moments. One of these moments comes from the film’s opening scene. “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” played as RBG walked into the university among a sea of young white men. This was the first time the viewers saw just how uncommon a female at Harvard was.

At the end of the movie, Jones walks up some steps in Washington, D.C., and as the camera pans around her, she transitions into the real-life Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which was the best cinematography element in the entire movie. It was a meta moment as well and it concluded the movie on a high note.

Overall, “On the Basis of Sex” was an entertaining movie, but it lacked substance. For the biggest fans of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this movie might not be the best because it is so simple. Contrastingly, those who just want to be entertained and learn a bit about the beginning of Ginsburg’s career will be pleased.