The First Step | Review | Tribeca Film Festival 2021


Signposts and weather vanes has become the default analogy for most politicians and activists. The signposts stand firmly rooted in their beliefs while the weather vanes flail about and ultimately land where the wind blows. Brandon Kramer's The First Step falls to the latter, unsure with whose side it stands, wanting to give space to its subject's ego while simultaneously vocalising valid criticisms. 

A controversial figure on both ends of the political spectrum, Van Jones has been criticised for how he navigates his ideals. Sitting cosy with right-wing figures such as Jared Kushner and Donald Trump himself as he schmoozes them into giving an inch when they should be taking the whole mile. The film puts the audience in an awkward and uncomfortable space they are not used to being in and pedals a polemic that suits no one.

When Jones is at home in his high-rise, Central Park view apartment in Manhattan, it is hard to feel an ounce of desire in humouring his bipartisan dream. He trawls through his collection of right-wing literature, saying "you can't fight an opponent you can't understand" to the tune of Donald Trump thanking him personally. Jones' journey in the film is similar to his journey in life, falling from grace as the 90 minutes tick by. 

His humility and genuine intentions do shine through in the presence of his family. Kramer slips in home videos that contextualise his fight, as well as the narrative of his mother, who has become bedridden and grows sicker as the film progresses. His twin sister recalls a memory of a younger Van with big dreams, spouting "I'm gonna change the world," which is a beautiful sentiment in the mouth of a child, but as you grow older, that should become "I'm going to change the world, with..." and it's the "with" that Jones struggles with. 

Kramer captures intimate conversations in small rooms through community organised action, and this is where the power of the film shines through. The need for criminal justice reform in America is immense, and it does handle the weight of the issue in spaces where people are allowed to speak freely of their own experiences. The formerly incarcerated Louis L. Reed is arguably the more compelling subject, falling face to face with out-of-touch attorney Lawrence Leiser who hails his prison-given education as "a wonderful thing". There are so many moments that speak the truth, and the film is aching to be immersed in the necessity of the issue over one man's mission to take on the establishment. 

Because it is unclear who the film is for, the message gets skewed along the way, lost among self-appraisals and Kellyanne Conway looking to the eyes of women she has indirectly harmed through her political standpoint. The First Step does what many criticise Jones for doing throughout the film, in that it gives right-wing people a pass for the damage they do with their vote. There's actually a quote in the doc that neatly summarises how it could do better: "it needs to be a little bit bolder". 

It is hard to feel catharsis when the win the film essentially leads to the bare minimum getting done. It celebrates 10,000 people leaving prison a few days early because of the clawing at the system this group has done. This bill was signed a year and a half before Trump re-instated federal executions after a 17-year hiatus and killed 13 people in the dawning days of his presidency. The First Step leaves a sour taste and is not for a time where desperate effort is needed. Perhaps if people stopped quibbling over small steps, there'd be more space for action and more interest in mobilising against a system that works for the smallest percentage of the population. 

The First Step is screening as part of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. 

Ticket information can be found here:

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