Before Van Jones was a CNN pundit or worked with President Obama, he was just a marginalized nerd from Jackson, Tennessee wanting to change the world. As a staunch, respected grassroots prison reform activist, he had a hand in closing five prisons. Yet, opinions surrounding him, his passion and even his reputation were about to take a major pivot when Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States.
In the face of Trump’s 2016 election and devastated by the outcome, Jones decided to engage directly with the new administration attempting to seize an opportunity and forge an unholy alliance with Jared Kushner, who has expressed support for a prison reform bill. Will the Congressional Black Caucus oppose a watered-down bill? Will Kushner be able to sway President Trump? Can Mitch McConnell be outmaneuvered? Brilliantly plotted and politically nuanced, The First Step explores political leadership vs. grassroots activism while illustrating what goes down when those who choose to bridge the political divide experience personal costs that can become devastating in more ways than one.
Directed by Brandon Kramer, this film will leave you feeling many things. Mostly how human rights issues have become flames lighting political torches for those seeking their own agendas, as opposed to serving and supporting the lives which elected them into office. Criticism for Van Jones came swift and often via Twitter and the talk show circuit. Many expressed their discontent feeling that Jones was paving the way for Trump to slide into a second term, which for many was an unforgettable and unforgivable move.
Regardless of how you feel about Jones, his methods resulted in getting The First Step Act passed by an administration notorious for spouting racist rhetoric, despite dealing with the devastating loss of his mother. However, some progress doesn’t come without a price tag nor is that same progress devoid of falling a few hundred steps backwards in the process. The First Step Act resulted in more than 10,000 people released early from federal prisons, while more than 2.2 million people remain incarcerated in the United States.
Kramer excelled in snatching a front row seat in places and situations where one would be surprised to see cameras allowed to roll and let alone simply capture the truth and everyone’s perspective from all sides of a very polarizing issue.
Watching Jones heartbreakingly eulogize his Mom in the midst of being dragged by social media and more importantly – the Black community was tough to watch. This is a man commonly viewed on the regular in full control. This docs reveals a father, husband and gentle spirit who had a passion for seeking definitive freedom and fairness for the incarcerated. Jones’ sister sums it up best, “God made you exactly who he wanted you to be…stand up…be proud of who you are.” At the end of the day, it’s how you process the criticism and what you do with it that matters.
God didn’t wash everybody with the same coat of paint. We don’t have the same set of opinions, morals or ideals, but we are all human beings, who at the end of the day, just want to be free emotionally and physically. The First Step provides that truth – the good, bad and the ugly through Van Jones’ journey of navigating politicians for the greater good. Do we still have a long way to go? Will Kim Kardashian’s appeal during that administration continue to make a difference moving forward? Will the incarcerated ever be released back into society with dignity and an opportunity to move past their discretions? One never knows, but we can always hope for the best.