‘The First Step’ Explores Van Jones’s Efforts for Prison Reform

Ulises Duenas


Van Jones has been working for civil rights since the early 1990s, and over the decades, he’s been featured in the media and garnered criticism from both sides of the political aisle.


“The First Step” documents Jones’s struggle to organize people from different backgrounds in order to pass a bipartisan bill on criminal justice, as well as exploring who Jones is in his own life.

Jones has a background in grassroots activism and has worked towards taking major steps in prison reform for a long time. His background is truly interesting, and you slowly piece together that for all the good he’s done, he also has a tendency to get overexcited and put his foot in his mouth. Jones’s best work involves talking to people who have been affected by the flawed prison system and have personal experience in dealing with addiction. There are many compelling stories here, and seeing how people turn their pain into action is what makes this documentary gripping.



Throughout the film, you see how Jones’s willingness to speak to prominent conservative figures in order to establish common ground draws criticism from those on the left. Their stance is that involving conservatives who voted for Donald Trump only cheapens their efforts and absolves them from taking part in a regime that is against social justice.


Jones answers these criticisms by acknowledging that years of dealing with people staying within their own tight circles has resulted in little change. He sees the value in understanding the very people who would usually oppose the efforts of those he works with. It’s an interesting perspective and it’s easy to feel frustration the way Jones does when many people choose to oppose his efforts purely because of optics and stubbornness. 


“The First Step” does a good job of showing a balanced depiction of who Jones is. He isn’t perfect and made a lot of mistakes when he worked with the Obama administration. Despite working in politics for so long, he still has trouble choosing his words carefully and needlessly upsetting his supporters by getting chummy with conservatives like Jared Kushner. In many ways, he is his own worst enemy, but it does make him more interesting and relatable, because he comes off as an authentic human being trying to do good in the world.


I didn’t know much about the First Step Act, so watching this was a great way to learn both sides of the issue and the story of how it came to pass. Van Jones is an intriguing figure at the center of this film, and watching this film was like observing a character study, where you sympathize with the protagonist in some parts and side with the people criticizing him in others. “The First Step” is well-edited and does a great job of telling an important story in a compelling fashion.


Author Bio:

Ulises Duenas is a senior writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


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