On the Basis of Sex is a partially successful telling of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg established herself in the legal world by winning a gender discrimination case for a male client.
Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) struggles with discrimination first in law school, then from law firms that are reluctant to hire her because she’s a woman. So she becomes a law professor at Rutgers while raising a family with her loving husband (Armie Hammer), a fellow lawyer. Ginsburg wants to make the world a fairer place for women, and she finds what she thinks will be an opening to reversing gender discrimination laws: a case where a man (Chris Mulkey) is denied a caregiver’s tax exemption while he cares for his sick mother full-time.
At times, On the Basis of Sex feels a bit too much like hagiography. There are also times when the screenplay’s dialogue (written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman) is a little too obvious and on-the-nose. In the lead role, the British Jones struggles to maintain Ginsburg’s Brooklyn accent.
But where director Mimi Leder’s film succeeds is in its portrayal of how Ginsburg broke down gender discrimination via the law. It may seem self-evident now to say that it is wrong to discriminate against people because of their gender, but it was not so obvious in the fairly recent past. The movie is compelling when Ginsburg breaks down the legal basis for gender discrimination brick by brick.
The film has an admirable emphasis on the importance of persuasion. In the Facebook/Twitter era, many people are quick to resort to ad hominem attacks and patronizing dismissals of anyone who slightly disagrees with them. On the Basis of Sex acknowledges that actual persuasion is difficult. It takes time, patience, and hard work, but it’s more likely to achieve real change than a public name-calling contest. And that’s a message worth conveying in this day and age.