• Film

Docs: The First Step (2021)

The massive difficulties of consensus-building in a polarized world are ably highlighted in The First Step, a sociopolitical documentary that should find engaging reception with both those acutely interested in the sharp-elbowed realm of American political gamesmanship as well as those just contemplating real-world events of the past several years. Taking as its central subject lawyer, author, and activist Van Jones, director Brandon Kramer’s movie, fresh off its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and accompanying presentation at AFI Docs, focuses on the efforts of his nonprofit organization #cut50 (now Dream Corps) as it lobbies for criminal justice reform.

The First Step opens with footage of Jones – who on Election Night 2016 in the United States famously and extemporaneously called Donald Trump’s victory a “Whitelash,” or expression of race-based grievance in reaction, in significant part, to the presidential tenure of Barack Obama – at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of rightwing activists. There, Jones is heckled as a communist and generally harangued. The movie then backtracks, telling the story of how he came to make that unlikely appearance. 

Eschewing talking-head guidance, Kramer instead embraces an unfussy, very quotidian aesthetic which puts viewers on the ground with Jones and his colleagues, reacting to various crises of the moment, and uncertain as to how things will resolve. The film is political and smart, but relatable, in a way that isn’t heavy-handed or overly intellectualized.

Many components of the proposed Congressional bill which Jones and #cut50 co-founder Jessica Jackson throw their support behind are themselves not necessarily wildly controversial, finding support across a fairly wide swath of the political spectrum. But in addition to the common challenge of ideologically rooted policy differences, weaponized resentment and distrust plus the very act of working in a public way with the Trump Administration (notably Jared Kushner), combine to ignite a tinderbox whose fire threatens to consume Jones. These attempts to reach across the aisle in the name of results-oriented change and incremental betterment make Jones a pariah amongst the people with whom he has the most in common, and has spent in some cases decades working to build coalitions with.

In this regard, The First Step exposes the frailty and consequences of racial identity as an end-all, be-all marker of either empathy or action. This is most interestingly reflected in a campaign of exchange, running parallel to the legislative reform effort of the First Step Act, in which Jones brings together activists from South Los Angeles who have seen their community ravaged by crack cocaine and residents of McDowell County, West Virginia, who are grappling with the effects of the opioid crisis. Regular people from these very different communities, in visiting one another and sharing the personal pain of their individual stories, get to see similarities and find common ground. But they are also forced to confront sentencing disparities and other elements of governmental action (or inaction) which stifle change and perpetuate inequity.

Another part of The First Step’s sly success is how it economically trades in biography in a way that further illuminates its core thematic explorations, all while never tipping over into empty hagiography. Jones’s long history of “tilting at windmills,” as his twin sister Angela characterizes, is central to his personality, and the doggedness with which he pursues reform, no matter the slings and arrows he receives. In his self-described “fortress of solitude” loft in downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by books while undergoing a divorce, Jones’ commitment to transformation is meaningfully reinforced by his offhand comment, “Anyone who successfully made a change, I try to study.” Other portions of the movie also interweave and touch upon the declining health and death of his mother.

The First Step isn’t a movie of heroes and villains, and in that respect, it probably will land as a “tweener” to some political junkies. Showcasing uncomfortable conversations of honest disagreement along with matter-of-fact horse-trading, it’s generally careful to avoid assigning moral judgment to anyone even in its periphery – though Jones bringing in Kim Kardashian in a last-ditch attempt to get Trump to recommit to a public endorsement of the Congressional bill inescapably speaks to the latter’s fragility of ego, and grasp of and concern regarding issues through only the lens of celebrity and personal benefit. Overall, Kramer’s movie is a thoughtful work that raises real and weighty questions about identity, the value and limits of compromise, and the complicating nature of pride in the pursuit of change.