Film poster for "The First Step" with man raising his hands up outside court buliding.
Film poster for "The First Step" with man raising his hands up outside court buliding.
In a divided America, Van Jones attempts to bring people together to pass a landmark criminal justice bill — and finds himself under fire from all sides


Regular price $129.00



Criminal Justice Reform • Bipartisan Solutions to Polarization • Humane Responses to Addiction Crisis • Bridge Building •  African American Leadership 

Date of Completion: 2023 | Run Time: 90 minutes​​ | Language: English with English subtitles | Captions: Yes | Includes: Transcript | Director: Brandon KramerProducer: Lance Kramer |  Editors: Natasha Livia Mottola, Steven Golliday, Sara Fusco, & Leslie Simmer | Director of Photography: Emily Topper | Original Music: Joshua Abrams | Executive Producers: Abigail E. Disney, Regina K. Scully, Robert F. Smith, Deon & Roxanne Taylor, Brad Buhr & Bryanna Sapp, Christina & David Arquette, Daniel S. Loeb, & Jana Carter

In a divided America, advocate Van Jones controversially works across party lines on landmark criminal justice reform and a more humane response to America's addiction crisis. Facing fierce opposition from both political parties in a climate where bipartisanship has become a dirty word, Jones and his team enlist the support of justice-impacted individuals, faith leaders, grassroots activists and cultural figures — including Kim Kardashian — to pass legislation that would fix some broken aspects of the justice system and bring thousands of incarcerated people home early. The bill’s champions immediately find themselves navigating a high-stakes game of political chess in Washington, D.C. Their quest brings them face-to-face with progressive champions like Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, as well as conservative figures like U.S. Senator Rand Paul, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner — and ultimately, Donald Trump himself. While trying to pass the bipartisan bill through a deeply polarized Congress, Jones is condemned by the right for his progressive beliefs — and by the left for working with conservatives. THE FIRST STEP reveals an intimate portrait of an activist’s isolation and internal struggles while attempting to be a bridge builder in a time of extreme polarization, what it takes to make change in a divided nation, and the lives of frontline activists fighting for their communities.

Educational Media Reviews Online | Reviewed by Catherine Michael, Communications & Legal Studies Librarian, Ithaca College
"[A] story of how, with grit and passion, bipartisanship is still possible when gridlock seems the norm."

New York Times | Natalia Winkelman
"Personal, compelling, human,"

Politico | Kathy Gilsinan
"The Kramer brothers are D.C. documentarians attuned to the guts of the policy-making process: The resulting arc resembles Schoolhouse Rock’s “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” with more length and suspense, less music, and a lot more Van Jones."

The First Step: An in-depth discussion with filmmakers & producers Lance & Brandon Kramer

Oregon Arts Watch
"It’s a fascinating exploration of how, and whether, the political process can function in these divisive times."

The Hill
"The film reminds us that we must take small steps to achieve great things."

Read at Joe's
"The First Step is a triumph of a documentary and goes beyond being a Van Jones opinion piece. This shows democracy at work and how the government can align in the name of justice and fairness. Finally, this proves that Americans don’t need to make the country great again; it’s already great."

It's Just Movies | Bev Quested
“The First Step” is an inside revelation about the dynamics between what’s good for the country and the war between political parties. It’s the frustration and wisdom of Jones, who wants to get something done, that makes this film into a bit of a thriller as we watch to see if he can succeed.

Bain's Movie Reviews

Columbia Daily Tribune | James Owen
“Incredibly intimate, far-reaching in scope and engaging. One thing I missed during the pandemic was the joy of stumbling upon a riveting piece of cinema that surprises the audience as it unfolds. I had that experience…Even if you’re not a political junkie, I think you will agree it’s one of the best films of 2021.”

International Documentary Association's Documentary Magazine | Anselm Beach
“As a film that looks intimately at what “bipartisan effort” means these days, its timeliness is evident.”

The Original Feed | Steve Ramos
“You’ll leave 'The First Step' inspired to keep working on the next steps in prison reform and equal justice."

The Knockturnal | Joshua Gutman
"A necessary watch for anyone involved in politics and activism, just to see the importance and the risks of crossing party lines."

Screen Comment | Eric Althoff
"Van Jones is a fascinating man, extraordinarily intelligent and with empathy to spare. He so often reports on the news, but this time, he gets to be the story." | Gerogi Presecky
“A movie for this moment.”

Screen Zealots | Louisa Moore
“The First Step” is a documentary that matters because it reminds us all to look beyond our differences and organize to fight for what we believe in, because we are always stronger together.”

Invention of Dreams | Yashwanth Manjunath
"Overall, The First Step is both an illuminating look into Van Jones, and an insightful portrayal of what effective legislative advocacy looks like. It’s a beautiful example of what is still possible to achieve with the right strategy. I’d highly recommend this film for anyone looking for reasons to still have hope and faith in the American experiment."

Highbrow Magazine | Ulises Duenas
"Gripping." " There are many compelling stories here, and seeing how people turn their pain into action is what makes this documentary gripping." "does a great job of telling an important story in a compelling fashion."

Atlanta Mail | Chris Jones
"An essential viewing experience for anyone interested in the challenges and triumphs of activism."

Fresh Buttered Popcorn | Joe Compton
"Well crafted." "Go support Indie Film and if you see it at your cinema, give a chance."

Reel In Film | John Ramos
"A great documentary."

AWFJ | Valerie Kalfrin

Film International | Elias Savada
"The film’s heart beats compassionately.”

The Curvy Film Critic | Carla Renata
"Brilliantly plotted and politically nuanced"

Escape Into Film | Paul Carlson
"This incisive documentary is a snap shot of sharp and seemingly wide division of modern American politics and a behind-the-scenes look at how genuine bipartisanship, compromises and all, can still find majority support...even in a nation that voluntarily divides itself between blue hats and red hats."

Willamette Week | Ray Gill Jr.
"A documentary examining what it takes to get something accomplished."

Rachel's Reviews | Rachel Wagner
"If you want to see a fascinating a look at modern day politics watch The First Step."

Boulder Weekly | Michael Casey
"The film's title, The First Step, is a suggestion to an approach to healing hurt communities."

The Moveable Fest | Stephan Saito
“When progress is usually messier as it’s happening than when it’s remembered, the ability of The First Step to engage with the moment that it’s in is invaluable.”

PHIndie | Dan Scully
“The First Step is a story worth telling. Diverse people, whose relationships aren’t typically simpatico, gathering together to produce tangible, permanent change in an area of society that desperately needs it.”

Oregon Artswatch | Marc Mohan
"It’s an impressive and immersive fly-on-the wall look at, as they say, how the sausage gets made...Whether one agrees with his political strategy or not, The First Step is a fascinating look at process and personality in Washington."

Hollywood Chicago | Patrick McDonald
“An interesting and in-depth documentary regarding [Van Jones’] journey to prison reform legislation during the Trump administration."

Film Threat | Alan Ng
“The First Step works because it’s as honest about the state of government as it is passionate about doing so.”

The Playlist | Cory Woodroof
"The First Step engages without patronizing and tries to provide a balanced portrait of Jones and his causes."

Washington Area Film Critics Association | Tim Gordon
“A wonderful film about Van Jones, who finds a group of parents affected by the crack epidemic in South Central L.A. and a group of parents in West Virginia affected by the opioid epidemic, and brings those two together to pass The First Step Act.”

Jon of All Trades Podcast | Jonathan Ekstrom
“A fascinating documentary featuring a cadre of compelling personalities and a multitude of twists in the journey. Prison reform is a complex issue with no easy solutions, and this documentary does a fantastic job of capturing an unusual snapshot in time where an unusual coalition works toward a shared goal.”

Tilt Magazine | Stephen Silver
"This fascinating documentary looks at the work of CNN commentator Van Jones and his push to pass a criminal justice reform bill...It’s a rare documentary that shows the step-by-step shepherding of a piece of legislation."

The Arty Chick | Jill Boniske
“Very timely and engaging.”

Film Festival Today | Christopher Llewellyn Reed
“A wonderful examination of the day-to-day hard work of policy-making.”

Starry Magazine | Jennifer Vintzileos
"Kramer’s attention to capturing scenes are a stark reminder of just how alike we all are, despite who we back politically. Both groups had had their own fair share of heartache and trauma from family members being imprisoned for unfair sentences to loved ones they have physically and metaphorically lost to drugs, gangs, etc. And in their pain, everyone could come together to work towards a positive first step in making change.”

Chlotrudis Film Society | Vicki Oleskey
“A very honest and revealing portrait of Van Jones...Throughout the film we see Jones as a bridge builder. When he brings together a group of community activists from South Central LA with another group from West Virginia to talk about the opioid crisis, it is very moving and powerful.”

The Journal | Greg Fields
‘The First Step,’ illustrates so clearly what we, as a collective, pluralistic society, need — building bridges across the most volatile issues while treating those on the other side with respect, dignity and, ultimately, as fellow citizens rather than adversaries.”

Supicket | Audrey Chapman
“This documentary is absolutely compelling, and it hit so close to home (literally) to see awareness about such imperative issues in West Virginia being spread in such a compassionate yet illuminating way."

Cineaste Magazine Summer 2023 Issue | Reviewed by Elizabeth Walters

Published Interviews & Podcasts

Panel with Van Jones, Brandon Kramer, Douglas Copenhaver, Tylo James, Lonnie Jones
moderated by Axios Justice and Race Reporter Russell Contreras, AFI DOCS
Interview with Van Jones, TAVIS SMILEY PODCAST
GOLDEN GLOBES (Around The World Podcast/ Apple)- February 16, 2023-Interview with Brandon Kramer & Chris Jenkins
‘The First Step’: A former Portlander’s documentary explores the art of the (political) deal, OREGON ARTSWATCH
Interview with Brandon Kramer, FILM SCHOOL RADIO
Interview with Lance Kramer, ABC-KGON Channel 9 - TUCSON
MOVIKARMA-February 13, 2023- Filmmaker Interview.
SELIG FILM NEWS- February 13, 2023- Filmmaker Interview.
IN THE SEATS PODCAST (Apple)- February 21, 2023- Filmmaker Interview.
BIG BLEND RADIO- February 19, 2023- Filmmaker Interview.
SCREEN FISH- February 16, 2023- Filmmaker Interview.
FIND YOUR FILM- February 24, 2023- Filmmaker Interview.
Lance & Brandon Kramer Follow Van Jones’ Fight for Criminal Justice Reform in “The First Step,” WILLAMETTE WEEK
Negotiating a Criminal Justice Bill Across Party Lines (w/ Jessica Jackson), THE NEGOTIATORS PODCAST
All Rise, Cleveland’s new film festival focused on justice and law, looks to inspire change, CLEVELAND.COM
Aloe Blacc Shares ‘Free’ In Solidarity Of Criminal Justice Reform, SPIN
On Air Interview with producer Lance Kramer, KAKE NEWS
Interview with executive producer Christina Arquette, ARKANSAS MONEY & POLITICS
Documenting the First Step toward criminal justice reform with Lance and Brandon Kramer, THE GREAT BATTLEFIELD
Interview with Brandon Kramer and Louis Reed, THE SENTINEL-RECORD
Interview with executive producer Christina Arquette, UALR NPR ARKANSAS PUBLIC RADIO
Discussion on The First Step, Movie Schmovie Podcast
Interview with Brandon Kramer, I LIKE TO MOVIE MOVIE PODCAST
Interview with Brandon Kramer and Pete White, JON OF ALL TRADES PODCAST
Video interview with executive producer Christina Arquette, ABC7 - KATV
Interview with Brandon Kramer, QUIET ON THE SET PODCAST WITH EWAN GRAF
Panel Discussion with Lance Kramer, Noreen McClendon, and Dr. LaShon Sawyer, TOWARDS EMPLOYMENT
Interview with executive producer Christina Arquette, ABOUT YOU MAGAZINE
Interview with Brandon Kramer, BREEZEWAY PRODUCTIONS
Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Brandon Kramer talks The First Step, SHOCKYA!
Interview with Brandon Kramer, THE KATHRYN ZOX SHOW
Interview with Lance Kramer, WSLR PEACE & JUSTICE REPORT
Interview with Lance Kramer, PROJECT NERD
Interview with Brandon and Lance Kramer, BITCH TALK PODCAST
Interview with Brandon Kramer and Louis Reed, MY HARLEM PORTRAITS
Interview with Lance Kramer, Denver Business Journal
Interview with Lance Kramer, Selig Film News

Best Documentary Feature | Oxford Film Festival
Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature
| Boston GlobeDocs
Best Documentary Feature
| Bozeman International Film Festival
Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature
| Lakefront Film Festival
Best Social Justice Feature Film
| Lane Documentary Film Festival
2nd Runner-up for Audience Award-Best Documentary Feature
| Woods Hole Film Festival
| Evident Change Media For a Just Society Awards
DOC NYC 40 Under 40 List — Producer Lance Kramer
Best Director Award 
Berkeley Springs Film Festival

Woods Hole Film Festival
Bentonville Film Festival
Bozeman International Film Festival
Mammoth Lakes Film Festival
Detroit Free Press “FREEP” Film Festival
Big Eddy Film Festival
Nashville Film Festival
Chesapeake Film Festival
Tucson Film & Music Festival
Dallas International Film Festival
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival
Heartland Film Festival
Boston Globe “GlobeDocs” Film Festival
Tallgrass Film Festival
Philadelphia International Film Festival
United Nations Association Film Festival
Central Scotland Documentary Film Festival
Virginia Film Festival
St. Louis International Film Festival
Denver Film Festival
Lone Star Film Festival
River's Edge International Film Festival
Lake County Film Festival
Hawaii International Film Festival
Big Water Film Festival
Oxford Film Festival
Sarasota Film Festival
Cleveland International Film Festival
DC International Film Festival
Pure Nonfiction
Pan African Film Festival
Lakefront Film Festival
Queen City Film Festival
All Rise Film & Law Festival
Black Harvest Film Festival
Three Rivers Film Festival

Director, Producer & Featured Speakers of THE FIRST STEP


Brandon Kramer is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has spent his career directing films that tackle complex social and political issues. As the Director of THE FIRST STEP (Tribeca), CITY OF TREES (Netflix, PBS), THE MESSY TRUTH (CNN) and SAABA (AFI DOCS), Brandon has an expertise in telling stories about the complex relationships that form between communities, advocates and policymakers, and sharing these narratives with broad and diverse publics. Brandon's nuanced and deeply personal films seek to advance a pillar of a functional democracy by helping the public understand and empathize with urgent social and political issues.


Lance Kramer is a seasoned independent filmmaker with 15 years of experience producing award-winning independent films and leading in-depth social impact distribution strategies, for projects including CITY OF TREES, THE FIRST STEP, THE MESSY TRUTH, and SAABA. Lance speaks about his experience in social justice storytelling; narratives that represent people impacted by the criminal justice system; bipartisan and bridge-building narratives; impact strategies that engage racially, culturally, politically and geographically diverse audiences; filmmaker sustainability; and the life and career of an independent filmmaker.


Louis L. Reed is a leading expert in criminal justice reform, policy advocacy, and public health. Having spent 14 years in federal prison and worked on supervision, his leadership led to the passage of over 30 state and federal level bills, including the historic First Step Act in 2018. As an an award-winning author, commentator on the Law & Crime Network, licensed and board-certified addictions practitioner, and producer of Hulu’s UnPrisoned series, he speaks with audiences about social impact and leadership.