“On the Basis of Sex”
Who would have thought that one of the great movies about a successful marriage would center on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? While this year’s documentary “RBG” will clearly be nominated for an Oscar, it is hard to understand how this historical cinematic gem will likely be ignored by Oscar voters.
The movie centers on Ginsburg’s early fight to have women treated equally with men under our United States Constitution. You see her personally suffer such discrimination when she is one of only nine women students at Harvard Law School in the 1950s and thereafter found it impossible to land a job in New York despite graduating at the top of her class. Yet her own personal battle only gave her greater motivation to attack gender discrimination wherever it existed.
While the principal focus of this film deals with a federal appeal that Ginsburg and her husband Marty handled as co-counsel in the 1970s, the love and dedication these two had for each other will stir you emotionally. This movie is first and foremost one of the great authentic romances you will see on the big screen.
Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer give brilliant, warm-hearted portrayals as a couple equally dedicated to the law and their family. Jones is a knock-out in and out of court, and lawyers, in particular, will marvel at her interaction with students when she accepts a law school teaching position at Rutgers when she couldn’t find meaningful employment elsewhere. Jones is as funny as she is captivating.
Hammer continues to show his great acting skills, as demonstrated in “Call Me By Your Name” (2017) and “Sorry to Bother You” (2018). Here, despite the fact that he is a successful tax lawyer, he proudly takes a second chair to support the career of his spouse, which frequently includes cooking and taking care of their two children. The love between this couple will frequently leave you wiping tears off your cheeks, particularly when you realize Marty died in 2010 after they had been married for 56 years.
Cailee Spaeny also gives a wonderful performance as Jane, the Ginsburgs’ teenage daughter. She reflects the anger and turmoil engulfing our country in the 1960s-70s, and her parents had a full-time job keeping her focused on how to fight injustice.
In addition, Kathy Bates and Sam Waterston give meaningful portrayals of lawyers on the opposite end of the gender divide. Bates plays Dorothy Kenyon, a lawyer who had to deal with having her heart ripped out after losing an important case, while Waterston plays Erwin Griswold, the arrogant, self-centered sexist who was the dean of the Harvard Law School.
As I watched the Ginsburgs sit next to each other during oral argument in the Federal Appeals Court, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my experiences with my wife, Monica Foster. We practiced for years together before she became the executive director of the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Southern District of Indiana, and we were co-counsel in some memorable cases.
Like the Ginsburgs, we sat together during an oral argument before the 7th Circuit in Chicago on a complicated appellate case while also representing an indigent client in a state jury trial. The young man was accused of robbing and shooting a gas station attendant, leaving him blinded, and our trial followed Monica’s success in getting him a new trial after his conviction and sentencing of 110 years was overturned. Though the trial resulted in a hung jury, we eventually worked out a plea where our client was placed on immediate probation after serving more than five years in prison.
Then, as I watched the Ginsburgs walk out arm-in-arm after their oral argument, I thought of the emotional reaction Mo and I had after our client, Gregory Resnover, became the last man to be executed in the Indiana electric chair. We passionately believed he was wrongly convicted, and a small bottle of Jack Daniels could not wash away our emotional collapse in Michigan City.
Finally, as Marty watched Ruth’s powerful appellate closing argument, I could not help but reflect on the moment when Monica argued in front of a United States Supreme Court that included Justice Ginsburg. Mo’s response to a particular question from Justice Antonin Scalia reminded me of the pointed response of Ginsburg in this film when a judge sarcastically noted the word “woman” does not appear in the constitution: “Neither does the word freedom, (pause) Your Honor.”
So here’s to two great women who as lawyers have brought honor and dignity to our profession.
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
“If Beale Street Could Talk” brings all of the strengths and weaknesses that director/writer Barry Jenkins brought us with 2016’s Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” This is a historically important movie with a powerful story that will leave you exhausted long before its conclusion after one hour and 59 minutes.
First and foremost, it is the last film that a criminal defense lawyer like me would want to see as an escape. Jenkins describes the ordeal of a young black couple whose love and devotion for each other in a segregated black section of New Orleans decades ago becomes tragically interrupted when the young man is falsely arrested and accused of rape. The film centers on the ordeal of the family as they fight this God-awful disaster, and it reminded me of what I have lived through as a criminal lawyer to this very day. The last thing I needed was a reminder of the emotional agony that has become a part of my professional life since I began serving as a public defender in 1975.
The film is based on a book written by James Baldwin that embraces the ordeal of growing up black in America. Young African-American people have been constantly exposed to false arrests and gunned down under questionable circumstances by law enforcement, and this film captures that agony. In addition, its strength is derived from performances that exceed the praise given to other 2018 films that ironically star mostly white actors.
Let me start with the enchanting performances of KiKi Layne as Tish and Stephan James as Fonny, the two lovers who must learn to deal with his false incarceration. However, the movie belongs to the performances of Regina King, Colman Domingo, Michael Beach and Aunjanue Ellis. King won a Golden Globe for her performance as Tish’s mother, Sharon, a practical, thoughtful woman who travels all the way to Puerto Rico to try to find a way to prove her daughter’s fiancé’s innocence. You will never forget this performance.
Domingo as Joseph Rivers stands out as Sharon’s devoted husband, and watch for the captivating scene where the two interact with Fonny’s sparring parents, played by Beach and Ellis.
The movie’s weakness flows from continual scenes where the principal characters accomplish little other than staring fondly at each other. Then again, the film will appeal to trial lawyers as you watch Fonny’s trial counsel (Dave Franco) struggle to find a way to defend an innocent client. Those of us who have done this work understand the strains involved in dealing with a family’s agony, and that is never helped when financial costs become an issue. Again, there is nothing that happened in this movie that I haven’t personally experienced, and it reminded me of why I have sarcastically told my aging friends that I want this on my tombstone:
“Here lies Bob Hammerle. No, this isn’t good, but it beats practicing criminal law for all eternity!”•
• Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. Opinions expressed are those of the author.