On the Basis of Sex is the story of a young woman who wants to be a lawyer and that is one focus of her life. She is married with a young child and that is equally important to her.
The time is the 1950’s; the woman is young Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her husband Martin (Armie Hammer) is a lawyer. Their relationship is loving and throughout the film we see the devotion that Martin bestows on Ruth, personally and professionally.
The movie starts with a very crowded scene showing a horde of students showing up at Harvard Law School. Among the hundreds of white men, there are three women. That gender change came to Harvard two years earlier and there is frequent reference to the dislike of the change by senior officials of the school. Ruth (Felicity Jones) is one of the newcomers at the prestigious university. She is aglow with enthusiasm and her determination to express her true feelings tends to bring scorn from the institution’s dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston).
As the story progresses, Ruth is increasingly bothered by the way that laws in the country are slanted based on gender. Men are treated royally while women are viewed as legitimate citizens, but subsidiary to men. Ruth begins to carry the torch to change that situation. The opposition is daunting. Even lawyers who have fought the battle, like Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), are burned out and offer no help.
Ruth goes to ACLU for support. The local chapter is led by an old school friend, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux). He supports her cause, but tries to get Ruth to concentrate on a single case, rather than the whole problem. His belief is that a victory in one case would fell the dam and allow many other cases to flood the courts.
Ruth meets and takes the case of a man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), an unmarried, middle aged fellow who is caring for his aged mother. Eventually, they get the case before the state supreme court in Denver. The three justices are not particularly sensitive to her arguments, but just before the end of the hearing, Ruth becomes eloquent and hypnotically convincing. She wins the case and that starts the revolution (and ends the movie).
On the Basis of Sex is a very interesting and exciting film, with outstanding acting by Jones, Hammer and all the supporting players. It is warming to see Ruth and Martin stay on the same track all the way. That includes caring for their rebellious teenage daughter, Jane. Jane eventually sees the real value in her mother’s efforts and becomes a part of the effort to change the law.
On the Basis of Sex is not about politics. (I can’t remember hearing the name of U.S. President Eisenhower in the film.) It is completely focused on the issue of gender, and racial, discrimination in the law. At times, the plot is a bit cryptic, embedded in law jargon, but the theme of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s breakout in the legal world is clearly depicted.
On the Basis of Sex is at Harkins Sedona 6 theater.