Review: On the Basis of Sex

31 January 2019

On the Basis of Sex is a heartfelt tribute to the United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This collaboration between director Mimi Leder and writer Daniel Stiepleman follows several pop culture representations of RBG as our beloved feminist icon – from the Tumblr blog turned book titled Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to regular portrayals by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live, to more recently a documentary called RBG that chronicles her career. This film captures young Ginsburg as a struggling attorney and new mother, explaining how the first Jewish female Supreme Court Justice began her journey.

Starring Academy Award-nominated actress Felicity Jones as RBG and Golden Globe-nominated actor Armie Hammer as Martin Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex is a well-acted, witty biopic that draws our attention to the tax case that overturned a century of gender discrimination. The couple encounter a case of a single man denied $296 on his tax deduction because he wasn’t a female caregiver. This was unconstitutional discrimination ‘on the basis of sex’.

With an inspiring story such as this one, I couldn’t differentiate between what was real and what was dramatized. After Marty’s diagnosis with cancer, Ginsburg takes it upon herself to attend classes at Harvard Law School for both herself and her husband. There’s a scene where, after furiously completing Marty’s dictated essay, she organises the pages into one of two folders. Then, she pulls her own notes out of the other folder and starts studying. Both folders are marked in her neat handwriting. “Marty” and “Ruth”. I had to double check this: and yes, she did that.

However, the film feels formulaic at times. For example, Mel Wulf (played by Justin Theroux) of the American Civil Liberties Union is depicted as a problematic ally that drags out his support for Ginsburg’s litigation. Here, the antagonistic role seems forced. According to one of her biographies, Ginsburg had Wulf’s support within three days. Another instance of biopic cliche occurs in front of the podium, where Ginsburg addresses the court for the first time for her groundbreaking case. On screen, she falters, speechless, causing the audience to cringe as she accidentally causes the microphone to squeal against dead silence. But this never happened. In real life, she did not falter. I do not know why the filmmakers felt it necessary to revert back to the safety of an overused trope.

The balance was restored with charming cinematography and the uplifting portrayal of marriage. Set in the 1970s, with RBG in sensible yet stylish costuming, the scenes are all saturated with colour. Bright, soft oranges complement calming shades of white and blue. I loved it the same way I loved the filmmakers’ elegant control over emotional tension. Frustration from gender discrimination is counteracted by the love shared between the main characters. Even without knowing that Stiepleman is RBG’s nephew, the audience could tell that the script was written with genuine admiration for Ruth and Martin Ginsburg. Through this couple, On the Basis of Sex established the ideal partnership. Both people demonstrated unequivocal love for each other through tireless support. Marty was the better cook, the mitigator between Ruth and their teenage daughter, and most importantly, he split the domestic responsibilities to ensure that both he and his wife could pursue their careers. In this pair, I saw real friendship and absolute respect.

At the most fundamental level, this film told the tale of a young woman that did not back down. In addition to a thrilling story of struggle and success, this piece of work was edifying, providing just enough details for me to stay intrigued and motivated for my own research. Overall, this was a memorable film that salutes RBG’s unfinished story.

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