To want to change the world is not an uncommon ambition. Perhaps that explains why reflex responses to this sentiment are consolidating around the form of a dismissive grunt.
But what if, just this once, we paused and unpacked the aspiration before issuing a hasty dismissal? Then rescaled it to fit a cross-section of the world, and calibrated it according to the talents of its utterer, then, beyond that, situated it in a specific arena for enacting change, and, last but not least, launched wholeheartedly after that revised version of the phrase?
For the promising results of this experiment, see “On the Basis of Sex.” Mimi Leder’s (“The Leftovers”) biographical drama recounts some of the lesser-known episodes of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s (Felicity Jones, “Rogue One”) quest to dismantle legally-sanctioned gender-based discrimination, culminating in the case Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue in federal appellate court. Now, as the end of the film coincides with Ginsberg’s victory in this court case, the film errs on the side of rejoicing excessively over a small victory part of a much larger, and at times much more brutal, struggle. But all the better to err on the side of building momentum in favor of social justice than on the side of overemphasizing the limits of minute accomplishments. The latter tactic runs the risk of ingraining despair; the former leaves audiences feeling eager to carry the torch and characterizes the chief impression “On the Basis of Sex” will leave on audiences.
To achieve this effect, the film reminds us that if you plan to change the world, first, you must live in it. Whether you’re taking it to the streets, the courtroom or even the kitchen as your family prepares dinner, you will not be granted reprieve from the injustice you’re striving to upend. The filmmakers capture Ginsberg’s endurance of sex-based discrimination in various parts of her world, from the dean of Harvard Law School’s (Sam Waterston, “Law & Order”) framing of her admission to law school as nothing more than his own noble gesture on her behalf, to an interviewer at a legal firm ogling her (concealed!) cleavage before turning her down.
At the same time, the film remains conscious that Ginsburg is one woman amid an entire nation’s worth. She is not the only one who seeks justice, and the film is not mired in her vision of change alone. In various scenes in her classroom at Rutgers, she solicits the perspectives of her young students, who hail from diverse backgrounds. At home, she spars with her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny, “Bad Times at the El Royale”), who places greater trust in civil disobedience and Gloria Steinem than in the law. And in the process of avoiding a myopic portrait of what the struggle for equality looks like, the film renders a surprisingly comprehensive historical atmosphere and defies the tendency of historical biographical dramas to lose themselves in the force of their main character and neglect their historical situation in turn.
“On the Basis of Sex” defies other expectations. It doesn’t, for example, flatten the characters secondary to the subject of its biographical lens. In particular, Spaeny’s performance of teenage Jane Ginsburg comes to mind. She challenges her mother’s chosen arena for effecting change, at one point accusing her mother of settling to inspire another generation of activists rather than taking matters into her own hands. Later, she questions how much legal change can accomplish compared to social movements. These tense scenes will undoubtedly leave audience members reevaluating their own ideals of social change. As a film that centers gender-based discrimination, “On the Basis of Sex” also carefully avoids relying on tropes of female portrayals, especially in Jones’s portrayal of Ginsburg. Refreshingly, the filmmakers did not recycle the familiar dramas that working mothers and wives are often called to act out in film. Instead, the character simply lives her own unique story.
So, when next you hear someone say they want to change the world, think before you roll your eyes. Think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Or perhaps Jane Ginsburg. Better yet, picture an entire history of world-changing women and hear how powerful their voices are in chorus. And be grateful for the reminder “On the Basis of Sex” gives us, of the possibilities that await once we trade the complacency of cynicism for the humbling effect of a leap of faith and trust of self.