Finally! The Natalie Portman-led Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic that has been stalling in development hell for years is finally going to start filming in September.
There’s just one problem— Portman’s not in it anymore.
Yes, On the Basis of Sex is about to begin production, but now with British actor Felicity Jones as the lead. No reason has been given for the change-up, but, um, what the heck?
It’s a shanda that in the story of her life onscreen, the actor playing the Notorious RBG is not Jewish.
Listen, obviously you don’t have to be from New York to play a New Yorker, or Jewish to play a Jew (though, yes, Ginsburg and Natalie Portman are both both of those). Jones is a fine actor who will do a good job; her natural intensity will translate well to RBG’s determination.
But there are two major problems here.
The first is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the most influential and visible Jewish women in the country today. This should be a source of pride, but of course it also attracts bigotry. Do a simple Google search (scrub your computer clean afterwards), and you see that racists in America see her as proof of Jewish power and subversion, that her rulings from the bench are part of a corrupt agenda. You know the tropes, and you know anti-Semitism is on the rise. And now that there is the opportunity to tell her story, it ought to be someone onscreen who really understands what it is to experience anti-Semitism.
It goes without saying that Portman would have rocked the role. She is not only proudly and publicly Jewish, but the most prominent Jewish female actor of her generation, or at least the only one to win the Best Actress Oscar this century. Her Jewishness is not the best thing she would have brought to the project, but it would have been something.
As a member of a minority, the priority should be to cast a member of said group in an onscreen portrayal. From trans to disabled characters, there’s a growing movement to cast folks from marginalized groups onscreen. Jews have it a lot better than many minorities in that respect; Jewish actors are cast as other ethnicities in a way that, say, a performer in a wheelchair would not be cast as a character without a disability. But we’re still a minority, and an actor, while not necessarily the most important part of the creative process, is by definition the most visible. To cast someone from the outside suggests that an art form wants our stories, but not us to tell them. It takes away a bit of power.
The second issue is less universal: honoring the perspective of the character portrayed. Not every Jewish person feels strongly about their background, but Ginsburg does care, very deeply, and to cast a non-Jew in the role is a small step away towards the film showing us how she sees herself. (It’s not clear if the screenplay for this film makes much reference to RBG’s background, but it would be surprising if it didn’t, seeing as the writer, Daniel Stiepleman, is Ginsburg’s nephew.)
The film needs to emphasize Ginsburg’s Jewishness, including with casting, because Ginsburg emphasizes it herself. The SCOTUS judge has spoken of experiencing anti-Semitism, in addition to sexism, as a young woman, but she also speaks of her pride in her identity. She once said:
“I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”
It is crucial that Ginsburg’s full identity be explored in the movie documenting her life and career. With Jones in the lead it is still possible, but with Portman it would have been all but assured.
There is a ray of hope: The director, Mimi Leder, is a Jewish woman (Portman was actually involved in hiring her for the film). If Leder celebrates Shabbat, she should invite Jones over for dinner sometime. It’s time to get to work.