My New Year’s choice of movies is normally The Godfather trilogy. It sets the mood. “Leave the gun and take the cannoli”. “It’s not personal but business”. However, my recent ardent discovery of Netflix opened new doors to the world of movies. Not one to miss such an opportunity, I spent New Year’s week engrossed in two movies: On the Basis of Sex and The Green Book. Two movies based on true stories and equally enthralling. Both I would recommend to anyone interested in watching something substantial, relevant, and entertaining.
On the Basis of Sex is a short biopic of Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RBG). It focuses on her early years as a struggling law student in a man’s world. The movie was written by her nephew Daniel Stiepleman and edited by RBG and her daughter Jane. Although Ruth admitted that some imagination was given license, the “meat” of the story remains true to what she had gone through as a woman attending Harvard’s Law School in the early 50’s. The early 50’s, when women were not encouraged to go beyond teaching or typing.
When RBG entered Harvard, the university was in its sixth year of admitting women, mostly because the Dean’s wife urged her husband to do so. In 1956 RBG was one of nine women admitted to Harvard that year. One year prior she had given birth to a baby girl; Jane. That same year, her husband Marty developed cancer but she urged him to continue studying law. So she attended his classes and typed his papers as he dictated his thoughts. She did this while also attending her own classes. Marty went into remission and overcame the disease. Eventually, RBG transferred to Columbia and ended up as a Law Professor at Rutgers; she needed a job. She was top of her class at both Harvard and Columbia.
The movie brings up the legal and social divide between genders. Harvard Dean Griswold’s welcome speech to the new law students dismissed the presence of the nine women present and smugly asked the class; “What does it mean to be a Harvard man?” The movie goes beyond the now too familiar gender inequality of the 50’s through the 70’s; the film hones on a particular case which changed the mindset that the law is allowed to follow preconceived traditional gender roles. The case was based on the premise that women should be the lawful caregivers and nurturers.
RBG and her husband fought this first major case on behalf of a single male (Charles Moritz) against the IRS. Charles was the sole caregiver of his ailing mother. He was not married. He was not entitled to any tax breaks. Tax breaks were only given to women or divorced men but not single males. Teaming up with the ACLU, Ruth and Marty Ginsberg co-chaired their appeal to the US Court of Appeals in an attempt to change the caregiver laws that discriminate against men. A great line from RBG’s alleged address to the Court of Appeals was: “Why shouldn’t men be nurses?” Bringing home the stereotyping of gender bias.
I have always had an affinity with RBG. I can recall the many times some yahoo walked into my bank and asked for the manager “where can I find him?” My scathing reply was always; “I am the manager and you have found HER”. As women we have been referred to as “the little lady” and for a long time military wives were “dependents”. The joke went something like this: if the military wanted you to have a wife they would have issued you one.
The social male umbilical cord took a long time to break and not without pain. As the movie so eloquently brought up: women could not apply for a credit card without the permission of their husbands, and when RBG was at Harvard there were no female latrines there either. At a dinner party for the female law students Dean Griswold asked each woman why she wanted to “take the place belonging to a man”. The US Court of Appeals judges tried to justify discrimination through tradition. Dean Griswold who appeared for the defense (the IRS) blatantly declared; “let’s put gender equality to bed once and for all.” The Plaintiffs (Ruth & Marty) used the term “gender inequality” for the first time in their brief to the Court of Appeals. The paralegal typing up their brief thought it more appropriate than “sex discrimination”. She felt that the word “sex” was too much “in your face”.
The movie made me like RBG even more than I had before. I do not always espouse to her ideology but I sure admire this kick ass woman. She interpreted equality within the spirit of the constitution. In her tenure she has often brought out points of challenges and contention that few politicians or her colleagues want to address or comprehend. She points out that nowhere in the constitution is “woman” ever mentioned. How many of us have noticed that? “Freedom” appears in the 1st Amendment.
RBG’s legal and social commitment has always been “equality”. Possibly because of personal experience but probably because she was raised Jewish and by a strong mother. For example, her stand on abortion has always been justified by an “equality side” of the issue. A woman should be equal to a man in decision making. Nowhere is it more apparent then when she went to bat for Charles Moritz against the IRS. She was looking at the fundamental right of an individual to have the same rights as another individual who the law had given a preference to because of gender. In this case it discriminated against men. The law was based on a predetermined traditional role of one gender against another. Her fight for equality was and has never been conveniently feminist, but always relied on undisputed individual rights for equal benefits.
The Green Book is Driving Miss Daisy backwards. The story about Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a prolific piano player who in 1962, hit the US concert road in the company of the most unlikely driver; Tony Lip aka Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). The movie was co-written by Nick Vallelonga from conversations and years of reminiscing with his father Frank. The story takes flamboyant Don Shirley, who lives on the top floor of Carnegie Hall with a butler, across the mid-west to the deep South. The 1962 Jim Crow south. Dr. Don Shirley needed a chauffeur to drive him to the various concert halls, private clubs, and venues where he performed with two cello musicians from Leningrad. The chauffer’s job was given to Tony Lip; a Godfather-like character with limited vocabulary lost in vulgarity, and whose job experience included being a waiter/maitre d’/bouncer at the famous Copacabana in NYC.
In those Jim Crow days, black families took to the road using a guide book called The Green Book. A book that listed “safe” places to stay and travel through with hopefully minimal harassment and danger. The odds of being stopped by law enforcement and harassed were very high and often hazardous to your health if you were black. The movie has several scenes where Dr. Shirley was invited to play in high end venues only to be forced to find accommodations in sub standard “Colored Only” establishments. The friendship between the two men developed on various levels of often comic relief between the articulate and well educated Don Shirley, and the Joe Pesce-like Tony Lip, who managed to sock a few Southern hicks in the mouth while protecting his boss.
The movie is a good example of racism that tears people apart but also brings unlikely people together. NYC in the 60’s was not exactly haven to minorities either. Bigotry and bias was based mostly on territorial dominance of the fittest. The changing demographics brought problems which we discover in the first few minutes of the movie. Tony’s wife Delores gives a glass of water to two black men workmen at her house. Tony proceeds to slowly pick the glasses from the sink and throw them unceremoniously in the garbage. There was no love lost between Italians, Hispanic, or blacks in NYC. The movie manages to expose the best and the worst of both men and their individual response to the environment and upbringing.
In real life both men became and remained the best of friends until they both died in 2013. Some critics pan the movie as nothing more than a soft story of a musician who was neither great nor significant. However, they miss the point. The movie is about the resiliency of the human spirit. Both men had weaknesses; Don Shirley liked to drink and if so believed was also a closet homosexual. Tony was ignorant with barely enough education to write a decent letter to his wife. He could be described as the stereotypical street smart Italian American; carried a gun and got into fights. But together they discovered a balance between their two lives and existences that brought them closer than any friendships they ever had. They fought their stereotypical lives in their own way.
I am not a movie critic by any means; but these two flicks are worth the time, glass of wine, and cigar. Both movies peel the nuances of an era when inequality was normal. Both brought into the open the immoral and unethical justification of race and gender inequality as a convenience of the time. Both got me thinking that the “good ol’ days” were not really that good or great after all. Written in tongue-in-cheek cynic quotes, the writers were relatives of the protagonists and knew their subjects well. Taking creative and entertainment liberties into consideration; both movies hit me with a sense of awakening. Thank you Daniel Stiepleman for writing about your aunt who in true RBG character was pragmatic and told you that “if you must” to just go ahead and write about her. Thank you Nick Vallelonga for sharing a story that would have otherwise not been told. Thank you Netflix for being in my life!