In 1972, one extraordinary woman changed history, while fighting against sex discrimination in a landmark court case. That woman was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now Supreme Court Justice, then a struggling young activist, who’s played by the excellent Felicity Jones in this stirring and entertaining biopic.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an icon of the global justice system, whose work is deeply relevant in the era of Trump and #MeToo. As a passionate young feminist and human rights activist, she had the courage to challenge not just her superiors, but the American Constitution itself. The first woman to be tenured at Columbia, she won scores of groundbreaking discrimination cases before becoming a judge under President Jimmy Carter, and a Supreme Court Justice under Bill Clinton – only the second woman to fill the role. Her work continues to this day and its impact is felt across the world.
Spanning the 1950s to the 1970s, On The Basis Of Sex introduces Ruth as a lively student, married to fellow law student Marty (Armie Hammer). She’s one of few women at Harvard, and is rarely taken as seriously as her male peers by the Dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston). Even when she’s graduated at the top of her class and in challenging circumstances, Ruth faces prejudice from potential employers. While Marty’s star rises, she has trouble convincing bosses that she’s up to the job. Undeterred, she battles sexism the best way she knows: in the courts. On discovering that there are hundreds of laws that discriminate on the basis of gender, mostly at a cost to women, Ruth finds one that discriminates against a man. She has a feeling the judges might just listen to this one.
It’s an uplifting story about the fight for equality. Ruth shares childcare and domestic duties with her husband, and the pair work closely together to represent a man let down by the system. The film gives a touching insight into the bond Ruth shared with Marty, as well as with her daughter Jane, who represents the new wave of feminism and inspires Ruth.
Mimi Leder tells their story with a light, bright touch and the unmistakable focus of a female director. It’s rare to see a portrait of a working woman through this kind of lens; when you see Marty busy in the kitchen, welcoming his wife home from work, you realise just how rarely we see this scene on screen, even in contemporary films. It’s a role reversal that’s more powerful for being presented without comment. This is a partnership in the purest sense, and ahead of its time.
Both Jones and Hammer put in tremendous performances: she’s full of determination and as likeable as ever; he’s pitch-perfect as the husband dedicated to the cause. Kathy Bates plays feminist Dorothy Kenyon, and Justin Theroux is Mel Wulf, a witty activist with an eccentric air. Much more than just a quality period drama, On The Basis Of Sex is essential viewing for anyone invested in the fight for gender equality. It’s a film that both entertains and notes that change is possible – even in the face of stubborn patriarchy. You’ll come out invigorated – and a firm Ruth Bader Ginsburg fan.