MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
It would be fair to call Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspirational. She is beloved across party lines – a rare feat – and respected for her hard work and uncompromised integrity. The recent documentary RBG (reviewed on this website and currently available on Blu Ray, DVD, digital and Hulu and Hoopla streaming) is well worth your time.
On the Basis of Sex highlights Ruth (Jones) and her husband Martin (Hammer) during their early years together (they met while both students at Harvard Law School). But Ruth had an additional challenge that Martin did not have to deal with – discrimination on the basis of her gender. During an introductory dinner of her freshman class at Harvard, Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) asked all of the women to explain why they were taking a space that could have gone to a man. When Martin dealt with a serious illness that kept him housebound, Ruth attended his classes (as well as hers) to take notes in class. When Martin graduated and accepted a job in New York, Ruth moved with him, transferring to Columbia to finish her degree work. Finishing at the top of her class, Ruth still had a hard time finding employment due to her gender. (In time, they would both become well-regarded law professors.)
The film highlights a court case from 1972 in which Ruth and Martin collaborated, Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Their client was an unmarried salesman taking care of his elderly mother, but the tax code prohibited him from deducting caregiving expenses, because he was a man. Working with the ACLU, it seemed a perfect case to highlight gender discrimination. As the two team up, their teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) identifies with their struggle for equal rights. To add intrigue (from the “you can’t make this stuff up” file), one of the attorneys on the opposing side is Erwin Griswold, the guy who gave Ruth such a hassle in law school, now Solicitor General of the United States. It seems in many ways a somewhat trivial case, but it was one small step for Ruth, who would begin a long involvement with legal cases around gender discrimination, arguing six of them before the Supreme Court.
The screenplay was written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, who would bring pages of the script to his aunt’s house for fact checking and approval. Her thorough vetting of the manuscript is apparent; the film is loaded down with so much legalese, I had a hard time keeping up with the argumentation. Overall, I would have liked a movie with a bit more snap to it, falling somewhere between a Tracy-Hepburn comedy and My Cousin Vinny. (I’m not sure that Ruth would have gone for it.) But Jones and Hammer make an attractive couple and the film does a great job depicting what a long, hard struggle it is to imagine a world in which there are “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Galatians 3:28) On the Basis of Sex also reminds us that it is never enough to imagine the incoming of God’s reign; you’ve got to work for it.
Let’s get to work!
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: A fact-based legal biopic about the formative days of women’s rights.
One pitchfork: Occasional PG-13 swearing.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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