The First Step follows Van Jones through the complicated bipartisan legislative process of prison reform while he tries to toe the line between the left and right.
Brandon Kramer’s new documentary “The First Step” follows the main protagonist, Van Jones, as he lobbies Congress to pass the prison reform bill. Showing this year at Tribeca Film Festival, the film depicts Jones trying to navigate complex political realities and reconcile complicated feelings around prison reform. Depicting Jones being hit left and right with a barrage of criticism from politicians to public figures to activists, The First Step begs the question– who, if anyone, should Van Jones try to please?
Van Jones is a complex figure. Often a vocal political pundit, he cried on CNN when Biden won the 2020 election, saying, “it’s easier to be a parent now.” Yet Jones has also worked extensively with the Trump administration on prison reform. His comments were known to upset his audiences, like when he said Trump has “Done good stuff for the Black community.”
His dual messages have made Jones the recipient of harsh criticism. He’s been called “inconsistent,” a “political opportunist,” and much worse. For him, though, it’s all about being “balanced.”
This ideological push and pull ultimately makes The First Step fascinating and frustrating to watch. The more time we spend with Jones, in the halls of Congress and comfort of his home, it becomes unclear if the reaching-across-the-aisle strategy is for the best.
Straight out the CNN gate, Jones chose to attend a popular conservative destination, the Conservative Political Action Conference, to discuss his prison reform goals with GOP politicians and sway public opinion. Once there, Jones was met with the faces of shouting conservatives.
One woman asked, “Are you still a communist?” Another accused him of thinking all conservatives are racists. Despite the confrontation, Jones takes on political opposition with a sort of ‘all smiles’ mentality.
He laughs and fires back at the anger with friendliness. He encourages the outraged to check out his show on CNN with a casual candor. His laidback charm is a signature of Jones’ persona, but The First Step takes us beyond the friendly facade.
In his prison reform plan, Jones needs more than the signoff of politicians. Jones needs a human side to his activism, a way to make the conversation personal. Jones takes his efforts into a discussion on mass incarceration between two dueling Americas. He brings together two groups from vastly different parts of the nation: West Virginia and South LA. Together, they discuss their common experience with mass incarceration– West Virginia facing the opioid epidemic, South LA dealing with the fallout of the War on Drugs.
Two women stand out— Tylo James of South LA, born addicted to heroin, and West Virginia’s Dee Pierce with a daughter who struggles with addiction. Their stories and activism access a deeper level of humanity and give the story real stakes.
For a while, it’s precisely the sort of inspiring bipartisanship one would expect. Until Trump is mentioned. Then the commonalities disappear, and the smiles drop. One woman asks how they could support Trump, a man seemingly against her Black, Muslim, and queer identities. The other denies Trump’s bigotry outright.
The scene is a stark reminder of the huge effort Jones is trying to take on. It’s clear that he sees the path forward as a combination of the most progressive and conservative Americans. If only they can see what he sees.
That reaching-across-the-aisle philosophy is reaffirmed when Jones meets with Jared Kushner, former senior advisor to the Trump administration. Jones and Kusner aren’t only coworkers– they’re friendly. Friends? Their relationship is the sort of cross-party unity that Jones advocates for.
Throughout his journey, Jones sees himself through the lens of a superhero. He invites a viewer on a tour of his bachelor pad, where his superhero memorabilia is on display. Jones holds up some merchandise of his childhood heroes and says, “I’m what I wanted to be.”
The reality is much more complicated. Jones is committed to change, but not everybody is on board with his methods. The documentary is at its best when it shows this difference. It questions Van Jones, and in doing so, achieves a sort of balance between sides.
Van Jones was a leader in the White House when it came to prison reform, but his work wasn’t approved by all. Many grassroots groups were upset with Jones for meeting with the Trump administration, while politicians like Cory Booker wanted more robust legislation.
Jones had become a simultaneous ‘try-hard’ and a ‘coward,’ a ‘government sellout’ and a ‘corporate shill.’ Jones’ effort to bring both sides together had succeeded, but not in the way he wanted.
Van Jones stands in his kitchen alone. The public-facing persona is gone. Jones is anxious, facing pushback from the left about a bill that “does too little.”
There were times when Jones tried to brush off criticism as “haters” online, but opposition from groups like the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund are harder to ignore.
Enter a phone call, a moment for Jones to face his critics.
As a result, Jones is now looking at ways to make the bill better. He introduces sentencing reform, a big ask from activists and politicians alike. Then a twist comes in. The bill almost immediately loses support from the GOP.
At the minor change, the GOP falls away, and with it, chances for this legislation to get passed shrink even more. Amidst the problematic dance to find balance, Jones succeeds in the end in passing the bill.
The next thing we are seeing is Van Jones, standing next to Trump on the podium, all laughter and smiles once again. Jones celebrates his victory. But it doesn’t last long.
The First Step cuts back to The CPAC conference. Now Jones is on a panel about prison reform, chatting about his accomplishments with the bill.
“The conservative movement in this country, unfortunately from my point of view, is now the leader on this issue of reform,” said Jones. An offhand comment he made, activists heard and disapproved.
Jones must now sit down again with those activists he built his work on, and this time there is no joy. One says what the rest are feeling– Jones erased all their work with a few simple words. One man from the previous group even chose not to attend the next trip to the White House, citing support for the cause but being clear his views don’t align.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors makes clear that many organizers had a different methodology than Jones. BLM and other activist groups made a commitment to not meet with the Trump administration. Cullors’ showed support for Jones’ efforts but made it clear he was not alone in leading the charge.
Cullors’ presence in the film also brings a stark reminder of the current day. The film wrapped production in 2019, a fact that grows painfully obvious when Cullors labels herself an “abolitionist”.
The murder of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide movement made abolition a familiar word and reframed the conversation around police and prison reform. There was a new spectrum of support for the cause, ranging from reforming to defunding and (for some) to abolition.
Van Jones’ had taken on prison reform prior to those events, but his bill was described by politicians as a “small step” even in 2019. It raises the question- what place does Van Jones’ approach have now?
Our political landscape is drastically different, and it’s hard to know where Van Jones’ views on balance and peacemaking fit in. His work represents an effort to find a solution that upsets as few people as possible.
By the conclusion of the film, Jones’s small victory feels far behind. He is more solemn now, more unsure. His meeting with Cullor leaves the conclusion on teetering resolve, unsure of where his future efforts will be.
Still, Van Jones promises to take another step.
The First Step premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.