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‘The First Step’: A former Portlander’s documentary explores the art of the (political) deal

"The First Step" looks at how daring to bargain across the aisle in polarized times got a criminal reform bill passed.


Van Jones in a scene from “The First Step.”

To say we live in a politically polarized society is like saying the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground. Those seeking common ground between the left and the right, between Democrats and Republicans, are a vanishing breed. Whether these United States will remain so is more debatable than at any time since the Civil War.

And yet, as the documentary The First Step demonstrates, there are those who are trying to bridge the gap. The movie, which screens at PAM CUT’s Whitsell Auditorium on Thursday, Oct. 6, follows the efforts of liberal firebrand Van Jones to push a bipartisan criminal reform bill, one that (spoiler alert) was eventually signed into law as the First Step Act by Donald Trump in December 2018.

It’s an impressive and immersive fly-on-the wall look at, as they say, how the sausage gets made. Jones takes a lot of flak from his erstwhile allies in the Black community for even deigning to meet with the likes of Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway, much less give them a legislative victory. But he’s undeterred in, as he sees it, his quest not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Whether one agrees with his political strategy or not, The First Step is a fascinating look at process and personality in Washington.

That’s where producer Lance Kramer grew up (Bethesda, Maryland, to be specific), before moving to Portland right out of college in 2006 and getting a job writing for Willamette Week. His first visit to the area had come the previous summer when he attended a cousin’s wedding, and he fell in love with the place. “I basically couch-surfed with my cousin and then realized Nigel (Jaquiss) at Willamette Week had gone to the same college as me and was listed as a career advisor in journalism.” That led to an internship, and Kramer spent the next three years working the culture beat.

A scene from “The First Step.”

That journalistic background eventually led to a partnership between Lance and his brother Brandon (who directs) making documentaries. “As kids, we had always loved film. We made silly videos of each other with our parents’ camcorder, from as young as I can remember,” Kramer says. “I didn’t think there was any way I could make a career out of it, so I pursued journalism, thinking that was the closest thing to filmmaking that had a career trajectory to it.”

After honing his skills as a “nonfiction storyteller,” Kramer moved back east to care for his ailing grandmother right around the time that a career in print journalism began to appear less rewarding. In a “light-bulb moment,” he realized that “documentary filmmaking was this intersection between the things I loved about journalistic practice and visual storytelling. My brother, through a completely different process, came to a very similar epiphany around the same time.”

Unable to find jobs in the field, they decided to create something of their own. It was while working on their first project together, City of Trees, that the brothers met Van Jones. The film is about a green job-training program for chronically unemployed or recently incarcerated persons, and “after three or four years, we had a rough cut, but we wanted to reach out for some expert feedback,” says Kramer. Jones was “at the top of the deck,” having worked in the Obama administration and been one of the architects of the program.

After receiving invaluable notes from Jones, the Kramers worked with him on a web series called “The Messy Truth,” which was filmed during the fall of 2016 and released onto Facebook on the weekend before the election of Donald Trump. “The toxicity was so prolific on Facebook that we had a hunch to deploy the series directly where some of that toxicity is living,” says Kramer. The series went viral, had millions of views within hours, and became a springboard for the 2017 CNN series of the same name that featured Jones as a commentator.

A scene from “The First Step.”

That long-lasting relationship allowed the Kramers a huge degree of access as Jones pursued the cause of criminal justice reform as one issue that could unite at least some members from opposite sides of the increasingly volatile political divide. “We were really motivated to tell a story about someone who was still trying to accomplish a progressive victory at a time as perilous as those four years looked like,” says Kramer.

Filming took place over the span of more than a year, and Jones felt comfortable enough to allow both the sense of betrayal felt by former comrades and several moments of his own personal struggle and doubt to be featured in The First Step. “We really have tried to leave room for the complexity of multiple points of view, arguments for and against,” says Kramer. “And to deal with conflict directly, which is harder sometimes for so-called issue-oriented docs.”

One potential criticism of this approach is that it can devolve into false equivalency, the pernicious journalistic practice of giving equal weight to perspectives that lie beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse. With what has emerged over the last few years regarding the Republican Party’s hostility to basic principles of tolerance and democratic governance, Jones’ willingness to give airtime and credit to folks like Kushner and Trump can play a bit differently in 2022 than it may have in 2018.

Kramer grants that, to some extent, but also offers that “we’re trying to tell these stories in ways that will stand the test of time. We’re not telling stories that fit into a news cycle. We’re trying to tap into something that’s, for lack of a better word, universal, the human quality of it all.”

“So yes, it’s a story about a particular policy and particular people at a point in time, but also tries to tap into qualities that could be relevant at any point in time,” he continues. “So yes, we know a lot more about the Trump administration and all the horrible or illegal things that they did. But to get something done through the democratic system that has an impact on people’s lives, it’s very hard if not impossible to do that without some degree of cooperation across party lines.”

The film makes this point effectively, earning its title’s double entendre. “If you’re faced with doing something, or doing nothing and holding out to do everything, what do you do?,” asks Kramer. The answer, he and Jones argue, is that you take the first step.

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(The First Step will screen on Thursday, Oct. 6 at the Whitsell Auditorium. Lance Kramer will be on hand for a post-film panel discussion featuring Lewis & Clark Law School Professor Aliza Kaplan, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, and other criminal justice reform advocates, moderated by Nigel Jaquiss, the man who apparently made the whole thing possible…)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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