On a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2019, Van Jones, a liberal CNN host, asserted that conservatives are the new vanguard of criminal justice reform. Scenes from that controversial appearance bookend “The First Step,” a tactful documentary that chronicles Jones’s efforts during the Trump administration to garner bipartisan support for a bill that would modify prison and sentencing laws. Directed by Brandon Kramer, the film presents Jones as an impassioned figure who kindled animosity on both sides for his readiness to reach across the aisle in pursuit of his goals.
In many sequences, Kramer seeks to underscore his subject’s near-messianic zeal for progressive causes. Home video footage shows Jones as a Yale University law student praising books on revolution and flaunting a Malcolm X T-shirt at his graduation ceremony. But the film also makes space for critics of Jones’s methods, including the Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who says that Jones’s cooperation with the then president felt like a betrayal to many Black leftist movements.
At once a story of legislative struggle and an admiring profile of a crusader, “The First Step” sometimes gets bogged down in bromides about community and common ground rather than unpacking the specifics of Jones’s approach and how it differs from his detractors’. Indeed, the most probing moments occur outside the political realm, as Jones and his twin sister recall his onetime struggle with speech impediments. The film’s analysis may be limited, but such personal moments lend it a compelling human quality.
The First Step
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.
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