'On the Basis of Sex' Is a Rallying Cry for Radical Action

Director Mimi Leder talks "On the Basis of Sex" and why it's incredibly timely in today's political climate.

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Jan 3 2019, 8:44pm

Photo by Focus Features

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Columbia Law School graduate–turned–Supreme Court justice, has her life story retold in the new film On the Basis of Sex starring Felicity Jones—but the glamour of having a Hollywood movie made about her life has not shaken the 85-year-old.

Written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg was said to be meticulous about only one thing regarding the film. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg made one demand of us,” director Mimi Leder told Broadly over the phone: "We needed to be absolutely precise in capturing the law." Leder continues, "It’s really challenging as a writer and a filmmaker to do a really smart film with really smart dialogue, and also—I mean, this is tax law we're talking about—make it interesting.”

The movie highlights Ginsburg’s time at Harvard Law School, marriage to Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, move to New York City, teaching tenure at Rutgers Law School, and the eventual, yes, tax law case that would set precedent about gender roles in federal court. As one of the few women seeking a law degree at Harvard University in the late 1950s—she was one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men—Ginsburg’s story, as told in On the Basis of Sex, is one of unwavering perseverance in the face of constant gender-based discrimination.

After Ginsburg wins her first major case, in the movie as in life, she goes on to tackle gender-exclusive admissions policies, LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, and discriminatory laws against people with mental disabilities. She also worked closely with the American Civil Liberties Union to establish the Women's Rights Project that would serve as co-counsel for plaintiffs challenging a 1973 Texas law prohibiting abortion at any stage of pregnancy, except to save the life of the mother, known as Roe v. Wade. Given the presidency of Donald J. Trump and his controversial policies and rhetoric, Leder believes there’s no better moment than now to tell Ginsburg’s story as a reminder that revolutionary change can happen because of the work of individuals.

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“If you look at what's happening today, it's frightening,” Leder said. “[The political climate] just shows how strong the power of language is, and how, when you believe in something, you really need to speak it. I believe [Ginsburg] looked at the culture and she saw how she could change it."

Leder sees Ginsburg as part of a greater cause and community, rather than an outlier. “We talk a lot about her being a superhero, but the truth is, she's just a woman who, like many generations of women before her and since, withstood the subtle slights of the discrimination of culture around her. We're still feeling that today.”