• Film

Docs: “The First Step” – A Landmark Criminal Justice Bill

Originally published: February 16, 2023

The First Step is a powerful documentary following CNN media personality Van Jones as he successfully brought together both major American political parties at a time of extreme polarization to pass The First Step Act – a landmark criminal justice bill promising a path to an early release for eligible incarcerated people who invest their time and energy in programs that reduce recidivism.

Brothers Lance (producer) and Brandon (director) Kramer – whose credits include City of Trees and The Messy Truth – spoke to us on Zoom about the journey of documenting Jones’ bridge-building efforts during the Trump administration and the fierce opposition he faced from both sides. The film introduces us to many of the individuals that Jones recruited to assist in passing the bill, including faith leaders, grassroots activists and Kim Kardashian, as well as Democratic supporters such as Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, and Republicans Rand Paul, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump himself.


How did the idea for this film come about?

Brandon Kramer (BK): We made a web series with Van Jones called The Messy Truth in the leadup to the 2016 election, when he was having fierce debates with conservatives on the air, and we followed him into the homes of Trump supporters to model how to have some sense of civility across these dividing lines. When Trump got elected, Van sat down with us and said he’d be spending the next four years under that administration doing everything he could to try to get something done on criminal justice reform and the addiction crisis. Lance and I felt like he was about to walk into the lion’s den and try something that almost no one else was trying at that time, and we felt that no matter what happened, this would be an important story for the public to hear.

What were some of the biggest surprises in making this film?

BK: I’ve lived in D.C. most of my life and I was very cynical about Washington and felt like nothing could get accomplished in this city. But suddenly I had a front row seat to seeing what it actually looks like to pass a bill, to see it get Republican support, Democratic support, and then to get the president to sign it. It was amazing to follow all the conversations being had and see them make their way into a literal bill, a piece of paper marked up, debated, discussed and eventually passed by the House. In a moment of cynicism for many, I walked away from my experience hopeful.

How difficult was it to get your camera in some of these doors?

Lance Kramer (LK). Nothing with this film came easy. In some ways, it was easier to film in the Trump White House than it was to film in some of the community settings like the grassroots activists in West Virginia. This is not a “gotcha” film. There were no hidden cameras. We wanted to be transparent and clear about what we were trying to do, and we spent a long time building relationships with advocates and others on both sides so they would trust us. We’ve already toured almost 30 states with the film – some very red and very blue communities – and the amazing thing is the film has resonated across all the audiences.

What was it like being with Van during so many painful moments for him being under fire from both parties?

BK: Van is one of the most dynamic, effective, strategically brilliant civil rights leaders of our time in my opinion. It took enormous trust on his end to let us into such vulnerable moments in his life. Not only was he walking a highwire act and trying to thread the needle on a bipartisan bill under Trump, but his mom was also dying and a lot of other things happening in his personal life that were difficult. Yet, he really welcomed us in through the triumphs and the challenges.

You are both filmmakers and brothers. Does that change the dynamic?

BK: There is a deep shorthand that for both of us has lasted 30 plus years, because Lance and I were making films together when we were little kids. We’re really lucky in that we’re brothers that really like each other and get along, and we also have different skill sets and different interests, but shared values. So, I really love directing and Lance has a real gift for not just helping to tell the story in front of the camera, but also understanding how a piece of art or a story like this can interact and intersect with the world, not just with our industry.


Was it difficult to put your own political sensibilities aside?

BK: We made sure that the film was also clear about all the horrible things the administration was doing. But the film will make some viewers on the left uncomfortable to see Donald Trump and Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway working on a bill that results in freedom for a lot of unjustly incarcerated people. They’re not usually allies and they’ve done horrible things to communities across the board, so the goal of the film is to ask everyone to sit with some of that discomfort, then ask yourself, “Would I do what Van did, or would I do what other advocates in the film did instead – deciding not to go into the White House, or going in and speaking their truth to advocate for people in their community?” You have multiple characters in the film, and they all make multiple kinds of decisions so I think the film is a place to have that conversation, because we need to be given more of that nuanced ability on how we can engage and actually have a more open and complicated and deeper discussion around that.

After packed city and regional screenings programmed in partnership with national and local criminal justice reform organizations across the country,  

Award-winning documentary THE FIRST STEP will have a nationwide VOD Release on major platforms in the US on April 4 timed to Second Chance Month which runs through April.