2021 Nashville Film Festival Festival Coverage Reviews

The First Step (documentary) ★★½

Who is Van Jones? Those who do not routinely watch news telecasts might not be familiar with the political commentator, though Brandon Kramer‘s The First Step will quickly get you up to speed with Jones and his line of work. Jones is a constant contributor to CNN where he hosts and co-hosts various shows. Outside of his political commentary, Jones founded a number of non-profit organizations, the most notable being Dream Corps, known for their initiatives to support underprivileged families and communities.

MV5BMjNhZWIxYWYtMmE4MC00OWMxLWExNGQtMzk1MTM4OGI0YTZkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjU1NDgyMDc@._V1_But Jones isn’t without his eccentricities. He has a knack for putting his foot in his mouth and rustling feathers, both of which he accomplishes through the passing of the First Step Act and his comments on the act at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The First Step highlights the efforts Jones took to ensure the act was passed including working closely with Jared Kushner and enlisting Kim Kardashian’s help in raising support for the act. The inception of the act is bizarre, and even more bizarre yet that it was passed with bipartisan support.

Jones seems to be an anomaly within the political system, gaining support and detractors from both ends of the political spectrum. Those on the left believe it asinine to attempt to negotiate prison reform with President Trump and that the First Step Act won’t do enough, while those on the right believe the act opposes law and order.

The First Step assumes a certain degree of knowledge about criminal justice and prison reform – this will not be the documentary to provide viewers with background information on the topic (see Ava DuVernay’s 13th or John Oliver’s segments on prison reform). Instead, The First Step focuses more so on Jones and his journey to get the act passed.

Leading up to lobbying the act to politicians, Jones brought together a coalition of community leaders from West Virginia and south Los Angeles. The political orientation of these two groups could not be more different. However, when considering the impact of the opioid epidemic, each community leader shared common experiences and came to a similar perspective on what had to be addressed within the First Step Act. More than likely, the act’s bipartisan support can be in part contributed to Jones’s formation of this unique coalition.

When first introduced as a bill, the First Step Act did not include sentencing reform, leading some Senate Democrats to oppose the bill. A number of members of the Black community spoke out against the bill and against Jones, appalled when Jones made statements praising President Trump as the bill began to gain traction. Vital to gaining President Trump’s support was ensuring Kushner’s dedication to ensuring the First Step Act continued to remain at the top of the president’s priorities. Given Kushner’s own father served 14 months in an Alabama federal prison (tax evasion, witness tampering, illegal donations), prison reform was something that Kushner was keen to support. 

The passage of the First Step Act was remarkable during a divisive time in American politics. Near the beginning of The First Step, Jones notes that part of the intent of the Act was to enable the possibility of future prison reform, comparing the act to the Civil Rights Act of 1959, an act that paved the way for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Only three years since the passage of the First Step Act, the impact of the act is difficult to grasp; however, it is certain that the discourse on prison reform has increased awareness over the past few years.

Despite largely being a character study of Van Jones, The First Step Act doesn’t really sway us in any way to form an opinion on Jones. We know him to be a vital proponent for the First Step Act and that he has endless connections with political leaders, but we also know of his controversial statements and numerous detractors.

The documentary presents Jones to be the most vital proponent of the First Step Act; however, it minimizes the involvement that major supporters of the act Senators Charles Grassley and Dick Durbin played in its passage as well as the necessity of Jared Kushner’s support in aligning the Republican Party and talk show hosts behind it. It took Kushner enlisting the help of Vice President Mike Pence, Rupert Murdoch, and Sean Hannity to drive the narrative behind why the First Step Act needed to be passed immediately, and sustain its momentum through Congress.

And of course, to some extent, The First Step prompts us to consider why there exists such a large gap between the left and the right where, even today, the Democrat and Republican parties can come together to confront certain issues through legislation. The documentary doesn’t directly answer the question, but I have the feeling it comes down to empathy and personal connection brought upon in groups similar to Van Jones’s coalition.

Originally a music critic, Alex began his work with film criticism after watching the films of Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman for the first time. From these films, Alex realized that there was much more artistry and depth to filmmaking than he had previously thought. His favorite contemporary directors include Michael Haneke, Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Terrence Malick.

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