“The First Step,” an Award-Winning Criminal Justice Reform Documentary, Opens Wednesday at Cinema 21

Lance Kramer, a former Portland resident, produced the film, which chronicles Van Jones’ efforts to win shorter sentences for federal inmates.

The First Step (Courtesy of The First Step)

You’d be hard-pressed to find two people less likely to agree on anything than Van Jones, the Black civil rights leader and former Obama administration staffer, and former President Donald Trump.

That’s part of the tension that animates The First Step, a documentary about Jones’ efforts to push meaningful criminal justice reform through Congress during Trump’s term in the White House.

The film, directed by Brandon Kramer and produced by his brother, Lance, a former Portlander and WW contributor, has its commercial Portland premiere March 16 at Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland. (The film also screened last year at the Portland Art Museum.)

After the show, the filmmakers and three women involved in the Family Preservation Project, an Oregon program aimed at reducing the impact of incarceration on children, will hold a panel discussion along with Aliza Kaplan, who leads the Justice Reform Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School.

One of the organizers of the Family Preservation Project, Nova Sweet, says she found a parallel between Jones’ effort to walk a tightrope between progressive activists and skeptical conservatives and her group’s work in Salem.

The Family Preservation Project visits lawmakers regularly to maintain funding for a program to minimize the harm to children of their mothers’ incarceration. Sweet says about 85% of the women incarcerated in Oregon are mothers of two who are serving sentences averaging 39 months.

In addition to providing services to women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, the group seeks ways to keep kids out of foster care, which is both expensive for the state and often not great for the kids.

“I have learned how you have work on both sides of the aisle,” Sweet says. “If you are talking to Democrats, it’s about the benefits to families. If you are talking to Republicans, it’s about cost savings.”

View a trailer for the film here.

Tickets for the March 16 show are available here.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.