In the current divided world of Harvey Weinsteins and Brock Turners, of the Women’s March and Boston’s own “Slutcracker” (which is a must-see, if you haven’t already), “On the Basis of Sex” asks us to imagine a world when women could barely even attend law school. A world when it was still the accepted norm for a woman’s place to be in the home, and no amount of social media coverage could threaten the status quo.
The new Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic directed by Mimi Leder and written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, attempts to follow in the footsteps of last summer’s successful documentary “RBG.” And though no one can inspire young women quite like RBG doing a workout regimen in her 80s with utmost determination, Felicity Jones does a pretty great job. Armie Hammer, playing Ruth’s lifelong partner, Marty Ginsburg, wholeheartedly supports her.
Over closeup shots of dark blue coats and glimpses of large leather shoes, the opening credits roll alongside a booming choir chanting Harvard’s ancient fight song, “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” The camera moves in and out of focus over blazer pockets and leather shoes, until suddenly, we see it: a high heel in the midst of masculinity. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A powerful feminist symbol for young women today, it’s exciting to finally spot the woman we’ve been waiting for.
It’s 1956 and we enter the brilliant mind of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she interprets and witnesses change before her very eyes, decade by decade, and eventually sets precedent against unlawful discrimination “on the basis of sex.” This precedent would allow her to fight dozens upon dozens of cases that discriminate against women.
She does this by defying all odds against her: getting into Harvard Law School only a few years after they started accepting women, completing her coursework at the top of her class, in addition to her husband’s, who is sick with cancer, getting rejected by every law firm she applies to and being told by her ACLU “friend” that she needs a man to help her testify in court. The list could go on.
The film’s most obvious message is centered around a line Ruth hears her husband’s professor say as she attends his classes: “A court ought not to be affected by the weather of the day but will be affected by the climate of the era.” Public opinion should eventually prevail and make its way into law. This line hovers and becomes influential for RBG.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in the film happens when Ruth and Marty’s teenage daughter yells at catcallers on the street and Ruth realizes that times have finally changed, and perhaps the court is now ready to be “affected by the climate of the era.” It’s an exciting moment and pushes the film to a new and exciting second half that ends with a special surprise.
We see Ruth Bader Ginsburg struggle and overcome, over and over again, decade by decade. It’s hopeful and it’s heartening. But for some reason I left the theater thinking more about Ruth and Marty’s special love story and looking up the catchy musical love themes by composer Mychael Danna (who won an Oscar for Best Original Score for 2012’s “Life of Pi”). I thought about RBG’s bold outfit choices of bright reds and blues. Nothing unexpected hit me.
Maybe it’s because I saw “RBG” this summer and the historical facts alone were enough to blow me away. Maybe it’s that I can’t help but compare it to the ending of “BlacKkKlansman.” In the current political climate and with a topic this iconic, the movie could have tried harder to leave an impact.
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