Themes of justice, politics, and prison reform lift the documentary “The First Step,” about the struggle to pass the 2018 prison reform law.

Filmmakers Brandon and Lance Kramer tell an inspiring story of cable news commentator Van Jones fighting for prison reform via their documentary “The First Step.”


Filmmakers Brandon and Lance Kramer tell an inspiring story of cable news commentator Van Jones fighting for prison reform via their documentary “The First Step>’

The values driving the powerful, political documentary “The First Step” are activism, freedom, and equal justice for all. It’s a riveting combo for documentary fans and 2021 AFI Docs and Tribeca Festival audiences. Filmmaker Brandon Kramer and producer Lance Kramer make full use of the purpose-driven themes behind the story of The First Step Act (FSA), a hard-fought prison reform bill signed into law by President Trump on December 21, 2018. Brandon and Lance Kramer benefit from a solid movie hero with the attorney, cable news commentator, and former Obama White House environmental advisor Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones as the activist leading the FSA effort. 

Jones delivers a commanding presence via tailored suits, a probing stare, and a baritone voice. He’s a tailormade protagonist lifting the political documentary from start to finish. Between buzzing smartphones, CNN appearances, and Capitol Hill networking, Jones brings an emotional touch to the hard work towards making the First Step Act a signed law of the land. Jones 

Jones is best known for his CNN appearances and calling Trump’s surprising 2016 election victory a “whitelash.” Watching “The First Step,” you hope that Jones chooses a political run of his own. It’s easy to picture him as a U.S. Representative fighting for additional social justice legislation. 

There are plenty of familiar faces in “The First Step” to keep politicos happy, including U.S. Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Karen Bass and U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Jon Tester. The emerging activists supporting Jones with the First Step Act are the true stars of the movie. There’s Jessica Jones, Co-founder of Dream Corps Justice (formerly #cut50), a grassroots organization working to reduce the prison population while making communities safer. Dee Pierce is co-founder of Bikers Against Heroin in West Virginia. Jones and Pierce are part of a diverse group of activists assembled by Jones to communicate the universal demand for prison reform. 

Cinematographer Emily Topper keeps the camera close to Jones and his growing community of prison reform advocates. Editors Steven Golliday, Natasha Livia Mottola, Leslie Simmer, Sara Fusco, and Lewis Erskine craft a compelling balance between Jones’ high-profile work as a cable news commentator and politico and his personal life coping with his ailing mother. 

In the movie’s quieter moments, away from the flashier scenes with Kim Kardashian and Charlemagne the God, Jones shares his frustrations with his twin sister. In these scenes, the director Brandon Kramer captures Jones and his philosophy for bipartisan support and meetings with Jared Kushner and the Trump White House in a heartfelt manner. Washington bipartisanship over President Biden’s infrastructure package and police form continues to make daily headlines. It’s fascinating to see the political challenges facing Jones three years ago remain relevant today. It’s also powerful to witness the hands-on role Jones played in making prison reform a reality. You’ll leave “The First Step” inspired to keep working on the next steps in prison reform and equal justice. 

Director: Brandon Kramer

Producer: Lance Kramer

Editors: Anne Fabini. Sushmit Ghost. Rintu Thomas. 

Cinematographer: Emily Topper

Editors: Steven Golliday, Natasha Livia Mottola, Leslie Simmer, Sara Fusco, Lewis Erskine

Production: Meridian Hill Pictures, Magic Labs Media, Fork Films, Kartemquin Films, Big Mouth Productions, Hidden Empire Film Group, Artemis Rising Foundation

Distributor: TBD.

Behind the Curtain: Brandon and Lance Kramer previously collaborated on the social documentary “City of Trees,” about a green job training program in Washington DC.

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