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Review: ‘On the Basis of Sex’ follows a modern-day suffragette (Includes first-hand account)

If everyone accepted everything as it is, there would never be any change. It’s thanks to those who oppose the status quo that the world has the opportunity to become better for everyone. Whether it’s proposing new ideas or revolutionizing old ideals, the trailblazers light the way for everyone that follows. These principles couldn’t be truer than when reviewing the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Determined lawyers, political activists and ordinary citizens fought across the country against race and gender discrimination, and now the fight continues for the LGBTQ community. But change had to start somewhere and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is shown leading the way in On the Basis of Sex.

Ruth (Felicity Jones) was one of only nine women enrolled at Harvard Law in 1956. She was married to Martin (Armie Hammer), a second-year law student, and had a toddler, but she was smart, studious and finished at the top of her class. However, she quickly learned that just because they allowed women to earn law degrees didn’t mean any firms would actually give her the opportunity to practice. So Ruth became a professor and tried to convey her passion for justice onto her students. In 1970, while fittingly teaching “The Law And Sex Discrimination,” she came across a case that could finally succeed where others failed: a single man was denied caregiver benefits on the basis of his gender because the law indicates you must have been married or a woman to qualify.

Ginsburg is smart as a whip, and Jones conveys her strength and intelligence with poise and humour. She is undoubtedly an inspiration and an amazing woman. What she was able to achieve at a time when there were so many barriers to women achieving anything is astounding. However, she’d never say she did it alone as her husband stood by her side, encouraging and supporting her every step of the way. Hammer is an absolute dream and presents an ideal few could live up to, matching Jones’ passion and brains every step of the way. The Ginsburgs were definitely one of the first power couples and the actors portraying them do not let that fact be ignored.

It’s still shocking to think that not that long ago, there were 132 laws that deliberately identified women and instructed the law to treat them differently — and in most cases, inferiorly — than men. Moreover, a large section of the population – particularly the men defending the law in the film – felt the law was correct in doing so. When the district attorney decrees women’s place is in the home because they’re not capable of operating outside of it, the close-up of his wife’s face represented the other half’s feelings in just a look. Ginsburg’s call to action is joined by two other notable civil rights lawyers: Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), who’d lost an earlier fight against gender discrimination involving a too-severe murder conviction, and Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), who was head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s law division and reluctant to be attached to what he thought was a losing case.

Outside of unmistakably recalling these bygone eras through their distinct fashion, and Ginsburg’s appearance in particular, the film’s aesthetics are not there to make a statement — that’s left to the incredible story and brilliant performances of the actors bringing it to the screen.

Director: Mimi Leder
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer and Justin Theroux

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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