‘The First Step’ Review: Van Jones’ Criminal Justice Reform Doc Plays as a Vanity Project

“The First Step” follows Van Jones — social entrepreneur, justice and environmental activist, and one of CNN’s legion of political commentators — as he presses those in Washington, D.C. to pass a watershed justice reform bill in 2018 called the First Step Act. Premiering at the Tribeca Festival, the Brandon Kramer’s documentary has something of a protagonist problem. It’s a snag similar to the mix of feelings Jones stirs in his allies and foes. While there’s much to admire here, there are stylistic choices that vex. “The First Step” stumbles as it tries to balance its interest in Jones with the significance of the bill.

The title echoes Jones’ argument that someone in Washington has to make that initial move in order to forge bipartisan successes, particularly at a time when the nation’s body politic has an ever-widening gash. In order to push through the bill, Jones has to persuade a Republican House, Senate and White House. Jared Kushner is his go-to guy in the Trump administration. The documentary reminds viewers that Kushner’s sympathy for prison and reform was born out of personal experience. Father Charles Kushner served time in federal prison for tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering. (He was pardoned in December by the president.) Jones took a thumping from fellow progressives just as devoted to changing criminal justice for working with Kushner and the Trump administration.

“The First Step” joins a number of documentaries that leverage the charisma of political activists and representatives to illuminate issues — think “Knock Down the House” and last year’s “All In: The Fight for Democracy.” Each in its own way treads a line between focusing on a vital issue and over-selling its lead character. The cult-of-personality conundrum is even more marked in this documentary.

With his easy bark of laugh and big smile, Jones plies his own version of a charm offensive with Republicans. An early scene shows him walking briskly into the Conservative Political Action Conference for an appearance. As he heads to a panel, a woman in the lobby shouts, “Are you still a Communist?” He laughs. “You’ll have to watch my show.” Once on stage the question posed by the moderator is “Van Jones, what are you doing here?”

Being a go-between is a lonely gig “The First Step” will have us know. We see Jones alone, a lot. Jones scrolling on his smart phone. Jones solo in his sleek Los Angeles apartment. Jones at his desk in another apartment, this one with a view sure to tweak apartment envy. Jones pensive in a car. Jones having a heart-to-heart over the phone about how hard it can be to lead. The guy on the other end of the call: Bishop T.D. Jakes. Jones and former wife Jana Carter (a producer on the doc) went through a divorce during the time the film was being shot. And his beloved mother, Loretta Jones, was dying. His melancholy is earned. But a number of those shots seem intended to underscore just how isolated his working with the Trump administration made him.

Though he talks about ignoring the slings and arrows (and tweets) of his critics on the Left, Jones appears wounded by them. And the film references the vitriol — from social media and cable news — repeatedly. The director relies on clips and the soundbites when fresh interviews might have yielded more thoughtful exchanges, ones focused less on the social-media amped noise and more on authentic disagreements about tactics. When Jones sits down with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, their exchange proves insightful (and actually civil) about the myriad ways savvy people can disagree on how to meet the demands of social change.

Before embarking on this documentary, the director and his brother Lance (a producer on the film) had worked with Jones and Carter on a TV series and web series. The director has referred to this current endeavor as a “collaboration” between them, which may explain why “The First Step,” while illuminating and intimate, is also self-promoting. Too often, the documentary feels like a vanity project or a Van Jones explainer. When twin sister Angela takes the lectern at their mother’s funeral (yes, it was filmed), she says, “I promise I’m not going to talk as long as my brother. Being on CNN has made him long-winded.” She’s not exactly kidding.

Kramer would have done well to give a little more up-close-and-personal time to two of the members of Jones’s team, also central to the hopes for the bill: human rights attorney Jessica Jackson and formerly incarcerated community organizer Louis L. Reed. Thankfully, a secondary storyline provides a respite from too many woe-is-he moments: “The First Step” gains its best footing when Jones brings together two groups of community activists, one from Los Angeles, the other from West Virginia. South L.A. citizen Tylo James was born addicted to heroin, while W.V.-based Bikers Against Heroin founder Dee Pierce has a daughter with addiction issues. These two women remind viewers that documentaries are often at their best when they let compelling, unexpected characters shine.

When Jones encourages each of the groups’ members to travel to the other’s turf and then on to D.C. and the White House, there is genuine drama as a number of the activists of color struggle with their sense of who they are, the trust they’ve worked to instill in their community and whether or not going to the Trump White House can align with their personal — and honed — sense of ethics. Too often in “The First Step,” Jones tells us about the work he does. This storyline shows us — and proves better than all of Jones’ ruminations — that his efforts are hard, transformative and laudable.

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