Bipartisanship is challenging
The concept of “reaching across the aisle” in America has become synonymous with ideological compromise. As the Republican Party allowed themselves to be overtaken by white supremacists and the Democratic Party comes off as ineffective and disconnected, neither side looks attractive or practical to actually work with. Despite needing to work with these people to get any legislation passed, working with them can come off as aligning yourself with their overall values, tainting your message and reputation. It, unfortunately, makes sense, especially from the perspective of systemically disenfranchised groups that are used to broken promises and pandering. This tight-rope walk through bipartisanship is fascinatingly explored in the doc, The First Step.
The doc follows political commentator, journalist, and activist Van Jones as he tries to work with various liberal advocacy groups and the Trump Administration to pass The First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill. I loved this doc because it’s absolutely not a puff piece, nor some rant against cancel culture that all of us have heard time and time again from people trying to avoid accountability. For as many moments as Van Jones builds bridges and really gets one side to hear the other, there were equally as many where he messes up, alienating himself from his own base. These moments give the film self-awareness and adds narrative tension, watching Van Jones overcome obstacles to get the bill passed and maintain his relationship with his community.
The doc shows how criminal justice reform affects everyone regardless of one’s political beliefs. Regular people talk about how issues like the opioid epidemic and mass incarceration impact their personal lives. These moments reveal how bonds are made by empathizing over similar anxieties, regardless of ideological alignment. At the same time, the film is not naive about why we have these political barriers in the first place. Those same people, who are Trump supporters, do get confronted over the consequences of supporting him, and the film demonstrates how the purity tests of liberal activists can be harmful and prevent progress. The filmmakers strike a great balance of critique while showing how relationships can be made, and I can’t commend them enough for their work.
The First Step establishes its own identity from other docs about activism by focusing on the challenges of building a coalition of support. I do wish the film delved deeper into the systemic problems in our criminal justice system. The film does note the issues Van Jones addresses and how the First Step Act would combat them, but a little historical context could help people who aren’t knowledgeable on the subject. Still, I recognize why they didn’t, because the film’s focus isn’t just criminal justice reform. The film is about bipartisanship and the challenge of fostering relationships with people from opposing parties, which applies to any issue. This doc is a necessary watch for anyone involved in politics and activism, just to see the importance and the risks of crossing party lines.
The First Step will be making its next festival screening at AFI Docs Fest on June 23rd, which you can rent through virtual cinema here.