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AFI DOCS Review: “The First Step” Offers Cinematic Praise for Van Jones

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 1st, 2021

Van Jones in THE FIRST STEP ©Meridian Hill Pictures

The First Step (Brandon Kramer, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

Lawyer, author and television host Van Jones has not only had many roles in this life, but has also been many things to many people, admired and reviled, alike. A man with a penchant for consensus, he is not always easy to love if one is firmly committed to progressive politics, even though he may share your views. As one interview subject in Brandon Kramer’s documentary, The First Step, proclaims (with something less than respect), Jones is a fan of “unholy alliances.” In other words, he tries, for better or for worse, to bring people from opposite sides of an argument together to try to find solutions that are at least semi-palatable to both. In a less partisan age, he might be seen as a worthy deal-maker. That’s not really we are today, though, is it? And so he faces a lot of criticism from would-be allies, even as he receives praise from those with whom he most disagrees. In this new film, however, he gets his due, emerging as a thoughtful, well-intentioned soul. Hate him if you must, but it’s hard to fault his resolve.

Full disclosure: I entered this movie not inclined to like its subject, for I, too, am among the people not so interested in compromise with right-wing America. And yet, Jones here emerges as such a likeable, engaging presence that it remains difficult not to warm up to him, even slightly. Kramer (Saaba) makes sure to include both critical and supportive talking heads, so we can decide for ourselves what to make of Jones’ latest attempts to bridge the political divide. He also includes significant details from his personal life and history, allowing his full humanity to shine. We meet his twin sister and watch him deal with his mother’s death, while also learning about his divorce. If nothing else, we gain a firm understanding of what Jones thinks makes Jones tick.

Still from THE FIRST STEP ©Meridian Hill Pictures

The possibly fruitless goal Jones has set for himself this time, as the documentary’s title indicates, is to gain passage of the First Step Act, a law designed “to improve criminal justice outcomes, as well as to reduce the size of the federal prison population while also creating mechanisms to maintain public safety.” #cut50 (now Dreams Corps JUSTICE), a non-profit organization co-founded by Jones, decides to step up and take advantage of Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s professed desire to reform the criminal justice system. Even as most others in the Democratic Party shun the Trump Administration’s policies, Van and his team lobby for some kind of bipartisan consensus. But of course, once one side gets they want, the other side balks.

As such, the film is, if nothing else, a wonderful examination of the day-to-day hard work of policy-making. After untold meetings and phone calls, nothing is guaranteed. And in the case of a volatile, self-serving president like Trump, there is even more ego on the table than usual. Fortunately for Jones, he is not alone, as he has #cut50 co-founder Jessica Jackson and #cut50 national organizer Louis L. Reed by his side. Also, in one of his best ideas, he brings community members and drug-reform advocates from Los Angeles and West Virginia together, first out east and then out west, the blue-and-red-state coalition providing useful allies. But just as he makes progress drafting policy, he is pilloried for not including more forceful reforms. Still, he listens, changes are made, and eventually the political sausage is baked and served.

l-r: Louis L. Reed and Van Jones in THE FIRST STEP ©Meridian Hill Pictures

The First Step is a fine work of cinematic journalism, though Kramer, despite his many attempts to be objective, has clearly been won over by his protagonist. He allows people like U.S. Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (of New Jersey), National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls Founder and Executive Director Andrea James, Deputy Director for the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office Jesselyn B. McCurdy and others to voice their misgivings about Jones’ methods, but there is never any doubt about who the hero of the piece is. It’s not just Trump who has a big ego; Jones is no slouch in that department, either. Nevertheless, maybe that’s what it takes to get things done. At the end of the day, the First Step Act passes, and prisoners are set free. That’s something, right? I’m certainly willing to give credit where credit is due. How about you?

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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