Mimi Leder remembers the moment she realised the full reach of her new film, On The Basis of Sex. A biopic of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the film was given a preview screening and, afterwards, viewers were asked to identify the primary audience.
"And this woman raised her hand and said, 'Liberals! Liberals will see this movie.' Then this other woman said: 'That's not true. I'm a Republican and I'm going to tell all of my friends to see this movie. I love this movie.'"
If anything, that showed the wide cultural appeal of Ginsburg, the 85-year-old Brooklyn-born liberal who became famous after publishing her 2016 book My Own Words. The 152cm-tall Ginsburg, nicknamed 'The Notorious RBG' after the moniker taken by rapper Biggie Smalls, has seen her prominence inspire everything from tattoos to T-shirts to Tumblr accounts. It's something made patently clear in the documentary, RBG, that became a huge hit in the US last year, grossing $14.3 million (Dh525.3m), putting it in the top 25 documentaries of all time.
Leder's film has grossed slightly more than RBG in the US – $17.5m – since it was released on December 25. Starring Oscar-nominated British actress Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) as her loyal husband Marty, the US distributor Focus Features rolled the film out slowly in what was a packed few weeks of cinema, with everything from Aquaman to The Upside vying for audience attention.
Some criticism has rounded on the casting of Jones, who hails from Birmingham in England – far from Ginsburg's New York Jewish background – unlike Natalie Portman, who was lined up to play the role originally. "It is crucial that Ginsburg's full identity be explored in the movie documenting her life and career," read an article in Tablet published before the film came out. Her Jewish roots are given scant consideration in Leder's film.
Yet there can be no doubting On The Basis of Sex's credibility, with the script written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg's own nephew. He spent hours with her, talking through the events of her life, as did Leder.
"Meeting her is very intimidating," the director says. "She's this little thing, very tiny, very powerful. I was so intimidated! And it takes a lot to intimidate me!" Leder describes their first encounter as akin to a first date, as she plied Ginsburg with questions "so the script can have a more authentic understanding and feel for her".
Dubbed "RGB: The Early Years" by Rolling Stone, Leder's film begins in 1956, long before Ginsburg was appointed as a Supreme Court Justice in 1993 (when she received a remarkable 96 votes, with just three against). The film chronicles her rise from Harvard law student to her first landmark case in 1972, when she took up the cause of Charles E Moritz, who had quit his job to care for his ailing mother. At the time, the Colorado bachelor was being denied a tax exemption under a ruling intended for women only.
Ginsburg's ultimate victory was a watershed moment. "What she's achieved is quite extraordinary," says Leder. "This first case in the movie was a case that overturned 178 different laws that discriminated on the basis of sex and found these laws unconstitutional. So what she created for us in America was moving towards equal rights and gave us equality."
Even the right to apply for credit was denied to women in the US until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. "There were so many laws that discriminated against women."
Like Leder's film, RBG sets out to explore Ginsburg's impact on women's rights, a personal crusade that was inspired by her time at Harvard, when she was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500 men, and crystallised after not a single New York law firm would employ her despite her aptitude. Yet, while a biopic can only cover so much ground, a documentary can embrace far more.
A bigger difference between the two films is that in On The Basis of Sex – apart from a clip at the end of the real Ginsburg – we never see her as she is now. As Betsy West and Julie Cohen's documentary shows, she is utterly priceless in her senior years. In RBG, she can be glimpsed in a sweatshirt branded with "Super Diva", as she works out in the gym. Her waspish wit also extends to herself; she's highly amused by Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon, who has impersonated her on the show.
Leder's film, by comparison, is an earnest, straight-arrow work that, as The Hollywood Reporter noted in its review, somewhat overlooks Ginsburg's "lovely sense of humour and … sly offbeat manner that suggests she always has something up her judicial sleeves". Perhaps that is understandable; Leder's film focuses primarily on Ginsburg having her day in court. There wasn't time for much humour when faced with widespread sexual discrimination.
Both the documentary and feature film work as love stories – Ginsburg's love affair with the law and the possibilities of what you can achieve in the legal sphere, as well as her 63-year marriage with her husband, who died in 2010. When Marty had testicular cancer – something Leder's film covers – she attended all his classes, as well as her own, to help him pass his exams. "They were so connected," says Leder. "They had a truly equal partnership."
If Leder’s film does anything well, aside from bringing this legal eagle to a wider audience, it’s simply to show the hard work and determination of a woman such as Ginsburg.
Facing rampant sexism in the legal system, she overcame insurmountable odds when others may have wilted. "It's a movie about a human being, a woman who changed things for the better," says Leder. "She wasn't a superhero. She's just a brilliant woman who fought all her life for equality."
Watch the full On The Basis of Sex trailer here:
On The Basis of Sex is in UAE cinemas now