The First Step 2023
Distributed by Good Docs
Produced by Lance Kramer
Directed by Brandon Kramer
Streaming, 90 mins
Activism; Communication; Interpersonal communication; Political Science
Date Entered: 11/13/2023Reviewed by Catherine Michael, Communications & Legal Studies Librarian, Ithaca College
Much is made of the political divide in America. The First Step is a story of how, with grit and passion, bipartisanship is still possible when gridlock seems the norm. Yet to achieve that goal, compromises must be made and those fighting for a bill must be resilient, must have strength in opposition.
Reporter, Yale educated lawyer, and community organizer Van Jones is presented as an intellectual who admires and strives to be like Superman. We view his apartment, where the books he reads from every perspective help him to understand all sides; that understanding is what he uses in bringing together citizens from Los Angeles and Jackson, Tennessee to petition Congress for criminal justice reform during the Trump Administration.
His emotional strength came from his mother Loretta and sister Angela who knew his desire was to change the world. His mother taught her twin children that they both were bright and that if they applied them to something positive, they could be whatever they wanted to be. In addition to fighting windmills, he endures his mother’s decline and death in 2018. Her funeral, and eulogies by Van and his sister, are included in the documentary to show his struggles arise in both professional and personal spheres.
The legislation being advocated for in the 115th Session of Congress is The First Step bill which later passed to become The First Step Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-391). The trials and tribulations to get it signed had a triumphant ending for those who fought for the legislation. The documentary shows Van Jones and Jessica Jackson (of Jones’s #cut50 organization) meeting with citizens and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle in an effort to pass the bill. When reading about #cut50 after viewing the documentary, it is now called Dream Corps at the address dream.org; articles report that Van Jones left the organization.
The film presents a two-pronged approach to Van Jones's process to getting the bill passed: top-down and bottom-up.
Key to their top-down efforts was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who was a White House advisor and felt strongly about passing the legislation. There were also conservative legislators in favor of the bill– but their vote was contingent upon President Trump’s supporting it. Senator Cotton swayed the President against the legislation. The bill was endangered when Senate Majority Leader McConnell almost didn’t bring it to the floor. Van Jones’s team decided to work with celebrity influencer and criminal justice reform advocate Kim Kardashian. While the original bill lacked sentencing guidelines reform, a bill that included it became more amenable to the left wing of the Democratic party as a true “first step” towards reform.
Key to their bottom-up efforts were the grassroots organizers from both Los Angeles and West Virginia. Many of the urban and rural advocates had tragic stories of loss to relate which added emotional impact to their advocacy and the film. Some left leaning activists took inspiration from previous Civil Rights advocates, and in honor of their lost loved ones, visited the White House despite objections to the current administration.
The documentary did an amazing job editing this difficult story together. It showed a wide variety of media coverage including Al Jazeera, Democracy Now!, MSNBC, Fox News, and The Young Turks. It included clips from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) as well as more left wing talk radio, SiriusXM. Additionally, it showed a wide variety of Washingtonians from both Congress and the Executive Branch commenting on both Van Jones and their assessment of the legislation.
Many in the Black community were disappointed with Van Jones’s willingness to work with an administration that demeaned and harmed their community. At his nadir he felt stuck. He was called an Uncle Tom and his motivations were questioned. Even after the bill passed, his appearance at CPAC went awry as he called the Conservative movement the leaders on the criminal justice reform issue; this was not received well by the Democrats who had worked tirelessly with him. In the film, he made heroic efforts, but he also made mistakes; the film wisely displays his mistakes; they can be seen as teachable moments, but they also depict him as an idealistic man rather than a superman.
The ethical dilemma can be used for class discussions: can an individual work with a faction they largely do not agree with to pass a bill that will free a lot of people from overly long and unfruitful incarceration? Faculty can use the film to discuss the challenges of working across the aisle: of having patience and tenacity when advocating for a cause, of bracing yourself for harsh criticism and time away from family, and of the potential loss of personal reputation. Students can reflect: would I be willing to do what Van Jones did?
The final scene of prisoners reuniting with their families sends the message that all the trials and tribulations of working in a divided world were worth the effort. People regained freedom.
Awards: Best Documentary Feature, Oxford Film Festival; Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, Boston GlobeDocs; Best Documentary Feature, Bozeman International Film Festival; Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature, Lakefront Film Festival; Best Social Justice Feature Film, Lane Documentary Film Festival; 2nd Runner-up for Audience Award-Best Documentary Feature, Woods Hole Film Festival; Finalist, Evident Change Media For a Just Society Awards; DOC NYC 40 Under 40 List, Producer Lance Kramer; Best Director Award, Berkeley Springs Film Festival
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