On the Basis of Sex (11 January 2019)

There’s never been a bad time to celebrate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but arguably there’s never been a better time than now. The 85 year old has undergone three broken ribs and a lobectomy in the past three months, and still remains on the court, with no plans of stepping down anytime soon. The film celebrates her individual triumphs, and the triumphs she pioneered for the American judicial system and equal rights for women.

The film’s first part takes place in 1956. It begins with a sea of men in grey suits and briefcases walking in one direction, and in their midst, a women with bouncy hair and a blue dress, eyes full of determination. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of nine women in her class at Harvard, and immediately not treated as an equal to the men in the class; the Dean addresses the bunch as “Harvard Men” and at a dinner that is theoretically to honor the women, asks them “Why are you here,  taking a man’s place?” Ginsburg herself delivers a witty and scathing retort; the film establishes early that she has never been one to be intimidated, merely exasperated.

In this first semester, Ginsburg’s husband is diagnosed with testicular cancer, a disease which, at the time, had an incredibly low survival rate. Ginsburg immediately took his place in his classes while he underwent treatment, attending the classes of two people, transcribing his papers, all while taking care of an infant daughter. It’s a story that seems too impressive to be true, except, of course, that it is.

The film goes on to highlight the struggles Ginsburg had at finding a job as a lawyer in a heartbreaking sequence, and then makes a jump to 1970, where she has been teaching at Rutgers for the last decade. The heart of the film takes off from here. The film makes Rutgers look like a bit of a dump, in a bit of an unfair move, but one that highlights why Ginsburg feels unsatisfied with where her life has taken her, especially after she excelled in law school and graduated at the top of her class. She then comes across a case that she sees as an opportunity to further the fight against sex-based discrimination against women.

Felicity Jones is lovely as Ginsburg, arguably nearly too much so, and she gives an engaging and nuanced performance. The film does at times drift into the territory of being heavy-handed, a film about “Overcoming Adversity,” but its performances, especially Jones’s, keep it grounded. The film is at its most powerful at its most human moments– close-up shots of its actors faces, conversations between mother and daughter. It’s a film about a family, and about someone trying to do what she believes is right– real people, working together to engineer change. It isn’t a story, at its heart, that is larger-than-life. It’s a story about people, and the film flourishes when it remembers that.

Some of what may be perceived flaws are hard to discern, due to the fact that the film is based on a true story. For instance, it paints the women’s rights movement and Civil Rights movement as parallel, rather than intersecting movements. The Vietnam protests are also seen as parallel, or as a plot device when mentioned at all. The importance and intersectionality of the movements isn’t addressed as deftly as perhaps was possible. True, the film has a focused story to tell, but it’s hard for me to believe that the story couldn’t have been told in a more rounded manner. Black women have always existed, and have fought for their rights both as women and as people of color. This is something the film glosses over. Nonetheless, the story it does tell is an engaging one, and inspiring.

The film is not accurate in every way, I am sure. There are inaccuracies about specific years, specific timelines. Nonetheless, I feel like I did learn a lot that I didn’t know before about the life of this incredibly justice, and I feel that the point is not pinpoint historical accuracy, but an accurate portrayal of the spirit that it took to succeed against the odds. This isn’t to say that Bader Ginsburg has had only her spirit to thank– she is white, and had the support of a wealthy husband throughout her quests– but no one can doubt the astonishing amount of determination, perseverance and intelligence that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has possessed her entire life. She would not be where she is without those, and the country itself, one is sure, would not have made quite as much progress as it (in some ways) has. This film makes for an earnest celebration of her life and work, work that she continues to do, and succeeds in highlighting an iconic American figure.

A Note From the Author:

I’m well aware that this is far from my highest quality of writing. It’s been one of those weeks were just getting anything written and semi-completed is a feat. And yes, it doesn’t help that I got my wisdom teeth out, but this week has been like walking through sludge. Today, I just wasn’t able to get out of bed until my cat prompted me. Spero helps a lot with my mental health. He’s curled up on my lap as I type this. Some days that’s enough to keep my head above water, for sure. Some days it still feels like nothing’s worth it, and some days I can’t find the motivation to do anything at all. I have an appointment with a new therapist tomorrow night, and I’m trying not to put too much hope in it, but I have tried so many therapists trying to find one who’s even close to the right fit, and I am so worn down.

This project does feel like a chore sometimes, but I think it’s important to me. It makes sure I leave the house and it makes sure I do something that feels productive. It makes sure I actually practice writing, which is a huge deal to me. Being a “writer” used to be part of my identity, but I kind of lost that somewhere along the way, and I want to make sure I start writing more and don’t stop, because it is something I love dearly.