The First Step, is a documentary film about Van Jones’ difficult challenge working to pass The First Step Act; a landmark criminal justice reform law, while working with a hostile Presidential administration. But as we see repeatedly throughout the film, Van’s greatest struggle was not working with the Trump administration, but convincing progressive activists and politicians to move past their understandable distrust of the Trump administration, to support the passage of The First Step Act. The movie grapples with the age-old question all activists have to contend with at some point; incrementalism v. radicalism. As a film shown primarily from Van’s point of view, The First Step comes out firmly on the side of incrementalism, but still manages to represent the radicalism point of view fairly.
The First Step opens with Van on his way to CPAC 2019 (Crazy People at A Conference), where he is confronted by angry MAGA activists for his comments referring to the 2016 election of Donald Trump as a “Whitelash” on the part of white Americans unhappy with 8 years under a black President. Van is there to reach out to conservatives in favor of criminal justice reform and is praised for his courage by one of the hosts of the conference. This is the core of the film, that it takes courage to work with the other side in order to see meaningful change happen.
The First Step gives us an intimate look into Van’s personal and family life. How is it that a man can be so single-minded in his dedication to the cause of social justice? We learn that growing up Van was a nerd with a lisp. Mercilessly picked on, too shy to speak up for himself, but quietly determined to eventually make a difference in the world. Van was a huge fan of comic books growing up, with Superman being his apparent favorite. The film takes us into Van’s own Fortress of Solitude, where he plans his next moves as an activist, with only his impressive personal library for company. Van even goes so far as to say he doesn’t really have friends outside of these books. The library includes multiple floors of shelves packed with books about activism, including an entire section dedicated to right-wing activism. Because from Van’s point of view, you can never win if you don’t fully understand the other side. The viewer is left with the picture of a passionate man with obsessive focus on writing the wrongs of the world. Is this the type of dedication required to achieve meaningful change? That’s left for the viewer to decide.
This is a great film to watch for those of you who don’t know what Jared Kushner’s voice actually sounds like (I didn’t). Kushner is featured heavily in The First Step, both in private conversations with Van, and clips of his media appearances fighting for the passage of the bill. Kushner’s desire to enact real criminal justice reform comes across as genuine, and about as moving as someone with Kushner’s anti-charisma is capable of being. Credit also can’t help but be given to Trump himself for his willingness to work with Van. Despite everything Van has said about Trump on CNN, and Van’s repeated insistence that as soon as The First Step Act is passed, he will go right back to working towards preventing Trump from becoming a two-term President, Trump continues to forcefully back the legislation. And for the left-wing activists vociferously criticizing Van throughout the film, that’s the problem. Trump supports The First Step Act, so it must secretly be a bad piece of legislation. We see Van’s private frustration with the irrational nature of this reasoning, but we also see him listening carefully and responding appropriately in meetings with his most strident critics like Karen Hunter. Van’s critics on the Left do not want The First Step Act to pass and for conservative white Americans to then declare Mission Accomplished,
and move on completely from the issue of criminal justice reform. Van himself is understanding of this concern and compares The First Step Act to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, another piece of legislation, passes under a Republican administration, that did not go nearly far enough to address the problems of structural racism, but was arguably a necessary first step (pun intended) towards eventually passing more comprehensive civil rights legislation, under a more supportive administration. These conversations around incrementalism v. radicalism are necessary viewing for any aspiring activist interested in the challenges the come from both sides, when trying to pass any piece of significant legislation.
The best part of The First Step are the scenes between Van and real people on both sides of the aisle who support the cause of criminal justice reform. We see white conservative Republicans from rural West Virginia and black leftist Democrats from Los Angeles coming together, moving past deeply ingrained cultural and political differences, to work towards a common purpose. Particularly moving are the scenes where the conservative activists from West Virginia travel to Los Angeles to see Skid Row and then take a trip to the California Institution for Women State Prison. One of the activists sincerely believes that if everyone against criminal justice reform could just see what they saw and speak to the people they spoke with in the prison, criminal justice reform would pass. And best of all, when Tom Cotton and Mitch McConnell do everything in their power to kill the bill (like the despicable villains they both always are), including temporarily persuading Trump to withdraw his support, we see these activists lobby their government, meet with politicians on both sides of the aisle, and eventually help secure its passage by an 87-12 margin in the Senate! (Good luck getting that level of bipartisanship on anything). Over 10,000 people have been released from federal prison early, since the passage of The First Step Act. Some of whom we see joyfully going home to their families, at the film’s conclusion. Overall, The First Step is both an illuminating look into Van Jones, and an insightful portrayal of what effective legislative advocacy looks like. It’s a beautiful example of what is still possible to achieve with the right strategy. I’d highly recommend this film for anyone looking for reasons to still have hope and faith in the American experiment.
The First Step begins a national theatrical touring run this weekend.
New York – February 17 – DCTV Firehouse (1 week run)
Washington, D.C. – February 19 – JxJ Theater (1 week run)
Los Angeles – February 24 – Laemmle Royal Theater (1 week run)
With key regional screenings programmed in partnership with national and local criminal justice reform organizations and leaders including: Flagstaff (Harkins Flagstaff, Feb 21), Denver (Harkins Denver, Feb 21), Phoenix/Scottsdale (Harkins Scottsdale, Feb 22), Gilbert (Harkins Gilbert, Feb 22), Boulder (The Dairy Arts Center, Feb 22), Tuscon (Harkins Tuscon, Feb 23), Wichita (Tallgrass Film Center, Feb 26), Fayetteville (Malco Razorback Cinema Grill, Feb 28), Jackson (Malco Renaissance Cinema Grill,Feb 28), Memphis (Malco Studio on the Square,Feb 28), Nashville (Darkhorse Theater, March 3), Milwaukee (The Oriental Theater, March 6), Grand Rapids (Celebration Cinema Studio Park, March 8), Lansing (Celebration Cinema, March 9), Portland (Cinema 21,March 16) and more to follow.