THE FIRST STEP – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Early in the documentary The First Step, CNN journalist and progressive activist Van Jones walks through a convention center hosting the Conservative Political Action Committee. It’s 2019, Donald Trump is in the White House, and Jones is one of the few Black people in a White crowd dotted with red MAGA hats. One woman calls out, “Are you still a Communist?”

Another corners him while bystanders record with cameras and phones. “Do you think we’re all a bunch of racists?” she says, barely giving him a chance to answer.

“There’s a part of your coalition—”

“My coalition? Don’t you include me,” she interrupts.

“OK,” Jones says simply, continuing on his way.

Moments later, Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, commends Jones, who once worked for the Obama Administration, for the “courage and care” to speak at the venue. Then someone asks: What are you doing here?

That’s a question that Jones seems to ask himself—and that this fascinating peek behind the legislative scenes attempts to answer.

Directed by Brandon Kramer (City of Trees), The First Step follows Jones’s outreach to gain support for the First Step Act. The measure, which Trump ultimately signed into law in 2018, allows people in federal prisons to earn earlier releases. Although some analysts viewed it as modest, it was “the most significant criminal justice reform legislation in years,” Vox said.

A former member of the Obama Administration, Jones founded the bipartisan effort #cut50 to reduce crime and incarceration nationwide. Here, he meets with people of varying political backgrounds—from White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to grass-roots organizers and even influencer Kim Kardashian—to lobby for support of the bill.

His willingness to reach across the aisle, as they say—to take that first step—leaves Jones often threading a needle and getting heat from all sides. Kramer doesn’t shy away from airing the talk-radio and social-media name-calling and often frames Jones before a bank of windows at his desk.

Centered. Still. Alone.

The film also serves as a primer on Jones and a reiteration of his commitment to social justice, countering those in the film who call him a liar, an “Uncle Tom,” and worse. Footage from 1993 before his law school graduation shows him donning a Malcolm X T-shirt for the event and pointing out the books he’d read on revolution. “People have always thought you were tilting at windmills,” notes his twin sister, Angela Jones.

Jones recounts how years ago he helped stop the construction of a prison by appealing to White residents who didn’t want the facility in their backyard, and progressives and Blacks who didn’t want it at all.

“Dividers need us to stay in our own little bubbles,” he says, noting how he tries to break out of that by studying books on White supremacy and other views. “You can’t fight an opponent you can’t understand.”

Yet as the film shows, this strategy risks disrespecting and alienating those who disagree with or question his tactics.

As Jones and his colleagues highlight common ground to inch the bill forward, Jones occasionally puts his foot in his mouth, or different parties parse his words or various optics. Kramer gives viewers both frank interviews with subjects such as Patrisse Cullors of Black Lives Matter and fly-on-the-wall meetings with prisoners, residents, organizers, and activists.

Filled with political cameos, The First Step’s strongest moments include visits between people from South Central Los Angeles and West Virginia whom Jones introduces to discuss the impact of drugs and incarceration on their communities. The drugs gripping these areas vary, but the pain and concerns are similar, and while Jones’s affable humor about who voted for whom breaks the ice, he’s content to hang back as they hash out their positions and agree where they can.

Covering a brisk 90 minutes, The First Step doesn’t dive into the quid pro quo among legislators that no doubt occurred off-camera. However, it provides an absorbing sense of how intricate such lobbying can be. It also shows Jones humbled as others remind him to articulate what he’s trying to accomplish—and to listen better.

As one person tells him, “You represent power and the ability to speak truth to power,” and some alliances can “paint a different picture” of the work he’s already done.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.