On the Basis of Sex is a fictionalized telling of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s time attending law school, teaching at Columbia University, and then trying some of her early game-changing cases. That’s one heck of a premise for a film, so I hate to write the following: It is not very good.
Okay, it’s fine. It wanted to be great, but it’s corny and just... bleh. It’s an Oscar-bait biopic, so of course it’s very stylish and pretty. And it has a lot of those “levitating brain” shots that prestige dramas use, where the protagonist is shot from below her chin, so it looks like her head is floating above everyone else while she gives speeches in lecture halls or courtrooms.
Actually, On the Basis of Sex feels a lot like The Theory of Everything, the Oscar-bait biopic about the late, great Stephen Hawking (in which Felicity Jones also starred, but as the supportive spouse, not the genius). Here, Ginsburg is framed in the same manner as Hawking was—with a plucky, wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes everyone else in the movie smirk at her, until they are won over by the sheer force of her brilliance. In other words, it’s patronizing.
Let me give you an example: There’s a pivotal scene in On the Basis of Sex when Ginsburg stands before a panel of judges, trying a case that could overturn sex-based discrimination for tax benefits. A snide judge tells Ginsburg that the word “woman” doesn’t ever appear in the Constitution. Ginsburg replies that “freedom” doesn’t either.
But what should have been a mic-dropping “A-ha, ya burnt!” moment instead made me think back on stuff I learned in fourth grade. Because isn’t “freedom” mentioned right there in the First Amendment? Freedom of speech? Yes, that is definitely a thing. So like, WTF? Why did they make her say that?!
As a look at the revolutionary life of a powerful woman, On the Basis of Sex pales in comparison to the superior documentary RBG, which came out last May and featured a ton of top-notch facts and face time with people in her orbit, from legal scholars to Tumblr stans to everyone in between.
I loved that movie! It was based on a biography, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which I also loved. I learned a ton about Ruth Bader Ginsburg from that book and movie. I hold her very close to my heart. I buy whatever she’s selling. So it’s especially weird I couldn’t get on board with On the Basis of Sex.
Part of it might be that this movie just doesn’t feel like something we need. Ginsburg’s life and accomplishments aren’t secret; this isn’t a Hidden Figures-esque glimpse into the deeds of a previously underappreciated American. Ginsburg had her Supreme Court confirmation hearing almost 30 years ago; she’s been exposed. Pete Davidson just got an RBG tattoo, and my mom is the one who told me about it.
RBG is appreciated, and she will never not be cool. But that doesn’t make this movie good. Ginsburg’s life is one of those great examples of real life being better than fiction. If you need to spend two hours at the Church of Ruth, On the Basis of Sex isn’t the best place to worship.