Political Film Review #582

ON THE BASIS OF SEX CELEBRATES RUTH BADER GINSBURG’S STRUGGLE

The film On the Basis of Sex is a biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1993 and has authored landmark rulings to bring gender equality to the United States. The focus is on her extraordinary quest to be accepted as a female attorney on a par with males in the legal profession.

The action begins when Mrs. Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) enters Harvard Law School in 1956 and ends with her eloquent speech against sex discrimination before a three-judge panel of the Federal Appeals Court in Denver during 1972. Initially, Harvard Law Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) and Professor Ernest Brown (Stephen Root) hassle her because she is “taking the place of a man.” After her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) graduates from Harvard Law one year before her and accepts a job in New York, she transfers to Columbia Law School to complete her law degree in 1959. But male snobbery stereotypes hinder her desire to be hired by a New York law firm, so she instead becomes a professor at Rutgers University Law School (and later Columbia), a position that allows her to choose any case that she wants to establish the principle that men and women should be treated equally. Most of the focus is on support from her loving husband, and later her feminist daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny).

The climax of the film, directed by Mimi Leder, is about a court case that establishes her reputation—Moritz v Commissioner of Internal Revenue. The case involves Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), who takes care of his elderly mother but cannot deduct $296 of related expenses on his income taxes because the law only allows that opportunity to women, and a federal tax court denies his petition. Ruth Ginsburg is eager for the case, which would establish a precedent that laws allowing unequal treatment are based on stereotypical thinking that is out of step with the times. After preparatory work for the 1972 trial, she appears in court with her husband as co-counsels. After he makes the initial presentation, she stumbles while making her first presentation before the court. The government, then led by Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, stresses the fact that over one hundred federal laws have long given more rights to men than women and warns against “radical social change.” In her rebuttal she points out that women are assumed to be incapable of certain jobs without evidence; indeed, the laws deprive women of the opportunity to demonstrate that the assumption about unequal capabilities is false and do not recognize the reality of the rising role of women in American society. Nevertheless, she stresses that the case involves just one law, not all one hundred plus, and persuades the three judges to rule in favor of Moritz.

Titles at the end indicate that her husband died in 2010 and their children have done well. The Political Film Society has nominated On the Basis of Sex for best exposé and best film on human rights of 2018. MH