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Film Reviews

On the Basis on Sex

Published February 8, 2019

Karl Marx notoriously argued that the revolution would only arrive after capitalism had collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Even allowing for the findings of the Banking Royal Commission that day may be a long way off, but it’s a longstanding idea that things have to get worse before they can get better.

In America some political optimists view the Trump presidency as an unparalleled opportunity to steer the country decisively to the left. The mind-boggling accumulation of lies, bungles and investigations is even starting to rub at the edges of the President’s famous “base”. For those who hold middle-of the-road views, for the terminally cynical or complacent, their nascent political passions are being galvanised by the Trump adminstration. If the meltdown continues until the 2020 election the Democrats will emerge with an overwhelming majority in both houses, and a block of young politicians determined to force change.

Hollywood is doing its bit, with a steady stream of movies that focus on social injustice and heroic figures who have swum against the tide. In terms of racial discrimination alone, we’ve had Hidden Figures, Detroit, BlacKKKlansman, and now Green Book and If Beale Street Could Talk.

On the Basis of Sex is Hollywood’s tribute to one of the great cult figures of American liberalism, Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States. Last year Ginsburg was the subject of a documentary called RBG, which looked at her impressive achievements as a crusading civil rights lawyer, and her gradual rise to “rock star” status as a judge willing to deliver dissenting opinions at a time when the balance of the Court has tipped inexorably to the right.

Ginsburg, a tiny woman who will turn 86 next month, is now part of American popular culture. Many of her most fervent admirers are young people who see her as one of the few public figures who has stood up for truth and justice rather than succumb to political expediency. On the Basis of Sex is a bio pic that charts Ginsburg’s long struggle for acceptance as a lawyer in a male-dominated field.

The story begins at Harvard in 1956, where the 23-year-old Ruth is one of only nine women in first year Law, alongside 500 men. She is already married to the love of her life, Martin Ginsburg, a second year law student at Harvard, and is mother to a 14-month-old daughter. When Martin is struck down with testicular cancer Ruth takes on the role of helping him complete his coursework as well as her own. Needless to say she still manages to be one of the leading students in her year.

On the Basis of Sex has all the elements of an old-fashioned Hollywood love story, with Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer making the Ginsburgs into a glamorous couple. But director, Mimi Leder has given us a taste of a much rarer sub-genre: a romance among lawyers, in which a shared passion for legal matters is the basis of a happy marriage. It helped that Martin Ginsburg was an unusually accommodating husband, willing to put his own high-flying career as a tax lawyer behind the ambitions of his wife.

The screenplay was written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, who allowed the judge to ‘correct’ his early drafts. This hasn’t eliminated all the fictional elements but it probably helped solidify the legal arguments that form the basis of many conversations. Ultimately these legal wrangles become the most absorbing part of the movie, as we realise the magnitude of sexual discrimination that exists under U.S. law, and the effort it will take to overturn these statutes.

Ginsburg’s method is highly innovative. She seeks out cases in which the existing legislation seems to discriminate against men rather than women. If she can win these cases she will have established principles and precedents that can be used to argue for women’s rights under the constititution.

The film concentrates on one of these cases in which the Ginsburgs collaborate to get justice for a middle-aged man denied a carer’s allowance while looking after his aged mother. Ginsburg has said she never stumbled in her courtroom delivery, as Felicity Jones does in the film, but the conventional wisdom of story-telling dictates that a character has to show vulnerabilty to earn a triumph.

In RBG it is said that Ginsburg created a legal landscape in the 1970s. On the Basis of Sex shows the pre-history of this earth-moving campaign, and the beginning of a brilliant career. What we see throughout is a woman who puts her trust in the law, feeling that justice will inevitably be done, even if progress is made only by the smallest increments.

We may leave the cinema with a smile on our faces but if we look at today’s Supreme Court it’s clear that the legal landscape Ginsburg helped create is being steadily eroded. Under a President who cares nothing for the rule of law the Supreme Court may soon be forced to choose between principle and politics in the most dramatic manner. There’ll be no romantic bio pics for those judges that ignore the claims of simple justice.

On the Basis of Sex
Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Daniel Stiepleman
Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Chris Mulkey
USA, rated M, 120 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 February, 2019