On the Basis of Sex (2018) – Review

On the Basis of Sex is now playing in select theaters. It will be released widely on January 11.

By Rachel M.

After seeing the documentary RBG earlier this year, I was both excited and curious to see On the Basis of Sex, which tells the story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early years. I was not disappointed. The film does an excellent job of portraying Ginsburg’s personal and professional life in an exciting and inspiring way.

The plot focuses on the groundbreaking 1972 tax case Ruth (wonderfully played by Felicity Jones) takes on with her husband, attorney Martin Ginsburg (a delightful Armie Hammer). After struggling to launch a career as a litigator, she knows the case could change both the direction of her career and more importantly the way the courts view gender discrimination. It was an intelligent choice on the part of writer Daniel Stiepleman (who is also Justice Ginsburg’s real-life nephew). By not trying to tell RBG’s whole life story, he is able to delve into the context for this legal battle. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue is set against a history of sex discrimination law and Ruth’s role is shown in clear contrast to her prior unsuccessful battles to gain employment at a law firm.

Additionally, the film places importance on the relationship between Ruth and Martin. Both attended Harvard at the same time as a married couple, with Ruth being one of nine women at the school. They each support the other, with Ruth helping Marty through a bout with testicular cancer and transferring to Columbia Law School when he gets a job in New York. He treats her as an equal, sharing household duties and helping with her job search. It is actually his idea that they take the Moritz case, and his advocacy that puts her as lead attorney arguing the case before the Tenth Circuit court.

Ruth’s relationship with her daughter is also captured by the film. Jane (Cailee Spaeny) is a headstrong teenager who fights with Ruth, but also encourages her and teaches her about the women’s movement that Ruth encounters as a professor at Rutgers Law School. Together they visit attorney Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), a renowned feminist and one of the founders of the ACLU. When Ruth meets with Dorothy to support the case, Dorothy dismisses her at first, but after reading Ruth’s brief on the case, she has a change of heart.

Spanning 25 years, the film allows us to understand the life events and struggles that shaped Justice Ginsburg and her crusade (after the Moritz case) to change gender discrimination law in America. She understands that the law will be shaped one case at a time and that it will be a long journey. With Charles Moritz, a single man who was denied $296 on his tax deduction for being a male caregiver, Ruth sees the foundation to begin the fight. “This is sex-based discrimination,” Ruth exclaims upon reading the case. “If a federal court ruled that this law is unconstitutional, it would become the precedent others refer to and build on.” The film builds beautifully to the climax, where Ginsburg opens the door to becoming the advocate for women’s rights that led her to the Supreme Court.

On the Basis of Sex is being released to coincide with Justice Ginsburg’s 25th year on the Supreme Court. It is a fitting tribute to a woman who changed America.

I give On the Basis of Sex an A.