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On the Basis of Sex Movie Review: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Rocks!

A young champion for justice fights for zero discrimination on the basis of gender.

Reviewed by on Jan 10, 2019
Rating: 4 Star Rating

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a lifetime champion of equality for women. Read Kidzworld’s movie review of her story On the Basis of Sex.

By: Lynn Barker

In On the Basis of Sex, it is 1956 and young, smart and pretty law student Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is one of only nine women allowed in her Harvard Law School classes. Her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), a senior law student, takes care of the couples’ infant girl while she studies. Although she is teased and put down by male students and Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston), she marches on through her husband’s cancer scare and intense anti-female in the workplace insults to fight against discrimination purely on the basis of sex. Despite incredible odds, she succeeds in winning a landmark case.

On the Basis of Sex Trailer 

Early Years

While enduring discrimination in her classes at Harvard Law School, young Brooklyn native Ruth Bader Ginsburg climbs to the top of her class while taking care of her husband who comes down with cancer. She attends both her classes and his, taking notes, transcribing lectures and typing up his papers all while caring for their infant daughter Jane. Her determination is remarkable. She is basically superwoman!

Ruth must study for herself and her husbandRuth must study for herself and her husbandCourtesy of Focus Features

A Few Years Later

When Martin’s cancer goes into remission, he is hired by a New York law firm. Ruth asks the Harvard Dean to let her finish her Law Degree by taking classes at Columbia near his work. She is denied but transfers anyway and ends up with dual law degrees as first in her class from Harvard and Columbia but, in 1959, can’t get a good job because she is “a woman, a mother and a Jew”. Besides, the wives of the male lawyers would get jealous. Really?  After twelve turn downs from various law firms, Ruth takes a job as a professor at Rutgers Law School, teaching "The Law and Sex Discrimination". She is appalled that refusing a job to a woman on the basis of sex is legal!

Ruth is turned down for a law firm positionRuth is turned down for a law firm positionCourtesy of Focus Features

The Landmark Case

It’s 1970 and now teen daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) is also turning into an activist for women’s rights and Ruth is getting frustrated teaching. She wanted to change the world, not teach kids how to do it. Husband Martin brings a tax law case to Ruth's attention. Charles Moritz had to hire a nurse to help him care for his aging mother so he could continue to work. Moritz was denied a tax deduction for the nursing care because the tax code stated that an unmarried man like him could not claim this deduction. Ruth wants to challenge multiple laws that assume that men will work to provide for the family and women must stay home and take care of the husband and children. Hey if she can win his case and prove that a man was unfairly discriminated against on the basis of sex, then that win can set a precedent for future cases challenging laws that discriminate against women. Also, it might be easier for an all-male appellant court to identify with a male’s case.

Ruth tries to convince ACLU lawyer Wulf to take the caseRuth tries to convince ACLU lawyer Wulf to take the caseCourtesy of Focus Features

Help from the ACLU

Ruth meets with old friend Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU to try to enlist their help, but he thinks the case in unwinnable and refuses. Ruth goes to famous activist and civil rights advocate Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), who is doubtful but later meets with Wulf and convinces him to sign on. After convincing Charles Mortiz to let the Ginsburgs and ACLU take his case, they file an appeal to get him his tax benefits. Wulf trains Ruth in a pretend, practice court to argue the case. She doesn’t do well. It is decided Martin will lead with the tax law and Ruth would wrap up with the equal rights arguments.

Ruth's daughter Jane, Ruth and activist Dorothy KenyonRuth's daughter Jane, Ruth and activist Dorothy KenyonCourtesy of Focus Features

On to Trial

Hoping this case doesn’t ruin her husband’s career and that her daughter will stop thinking of her as a bully, Ruth continues the case but the government offers Moritz a settlement of one dollar. Ruth wants the government to pay Moritz the sum he claimed as a deduction, make a declaration that he did nothing wrong, and enter into the record that the gender-based portion of the tax law is unconstitutional. The government declines this offer, setting the stage for a trial.

Ruth and Marty prepare for the big trialRuth and Marty prepare for the big trialCourtesy of Focus Features

Ruth’s Legal Argument

During the trial, Martin takes more time to address the tax law question than expected. Ruth is very nervous but makes several key points and can reserve only four minutes of her time for rebuttal. The opposition lawyer says he is defending the American Way of Life, saying that the Ginsburgs and ACLU want too radical a social change and hey, maybe Moritz just doesn’t want to pay his taxes. In four minutes, Ruth drives it home that the world is changing and the law needs to change as well. Women at home while men work is no longer a solid rule. Cliché labeling of who works and who doesn’t no longer applies etc.

Ruth only has four minutes to win her caseRuth only has four minutes to win her caseCourtesy of Focus Features

The Outcome and Future

At first The Ginsburgs, Wulf and Moritz think they may not win but Ruth has found her courtroom “voice”, is no longer as nervous and knows she did her best. Will Ruth win her case and change discrimination on the basis of sex laws? Yes! She goes on to co-found the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU which then changed many gender-based laws and, in 1993 was appointed associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite recent illness, she still serves there at age 85.  

A woman in a man's worldA woman in a man's worldCourtesy of Focus Features

Wrapping Up

On the Basis of Sex is an inspiring, well-acted biopic about a woman who, despite a lot of self-doubt and in a time of great discrimination against women, rose to champion equality laws and change antiquated rules based on gender. In short, Ruth Rocks! Felicity Jones plays her quite convincingly even if her Brooklyn accent fades in and out at times. Armie Hammer makes a great (and hunky) supportive husband. Kathy Bates has a tiny but effective role as a civil rights activist.

Felicity and Armie at a screening of the filmFelicity and Armie at a screening of the filmCourtesy of Focus Features

The film adds a very human touch as self-doubt and a wish to also be the perfect wife and mom, haunts this talented legal icon whose determination against all odds has worked for the betterment of all man (and woman) kind.

The film is important, especially for young people since it shows you that our current world, in which woman have a much bigger and more equal part, wasn’t always that way and it took courageous and tenacious men and women like Ruth to change it for the better. No biopic covers every detail in famous lives but we can give this one four stars and encourage you to go see it!

On the Basis of Sex Movie Rating: 4

Basis of Sex Movie PosterBasis of Sex Movie PosterCourtesy of Focus Features

See On the Basis of Sex in theaters Friday, Jan. 11th.

Voice Your Opinion!

Be like Justice Ruth and speak out!! How do you feel about equality for boys and girls? Would you want to be a lawyer and help change the world? How would you want to fight discrimination of all kinds? Comment below and/or lay down your feelings on your Kidzworld profile page!