“First Step” offers plan that can “bring people together,” says director

Director Brandon Kramer says he hopes his film “The First Step” offers a plan on how to “bring people together on the issues that affect this country the most: drug addiction and criminal justice reform.”

The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival kicks off “The First Step” Sunday at 6:30 pm at the Malco Theater.

Kramer and his brother, Lance, the co-founders of Meridian Hill Pictures, spent five years working on the film, which follows CNN political contributor Van Jones, a black progressive activist and political commentator trying to get a project through. criminal justice reform bill called “The First Step Act” under the Trump administration. As Jones attempts to build bridges on both sides of the aisle, his efforts appear to make him an outcast to many in his own community, according to a press release.

Viewers will see Jones face stiff opposition from members of the Trump administration, even though the bipartisan bill has been supported by many Republicans. Some conservatives felt it “went too far in helping reformed prison systems,” Brandon Kramer said, “and there are a lot of die-hard elected leaders who think we’re not doing enough to put people in jail.” .

One of the earliest opponents of the bill featured in the film is US Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Who said the United States has an “under-incarceration problem.”

On the flip side, viewers will see Jones face opposition from progressive leaders who advocated for bills for more comprehensive criminal justice reform.

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“There were activists who believed very strongly that any engagement with and working with the Trump administration could be detrimental to all the other issues the administration was not receptive to… be it immigration, ban on Muslims… all those other areas where the administration adopted policies that harmed those communities, ”Kramer said.

“There were a lot of activists who just thought that engaging on one issue could hurt everyone fighting on the other issues. So, you know, working with this administration was a very risky and very controversial decision. you see in the movie the real consequences, you know, there is a reason that very few people have tried to build bridges. And that is because when you do, you can really suffer the consequences. “, did he declare.

As Jones shoots both ways, American Bishop, writer and filmmaker TD Jakes gives him advice in a phone conversation, saying, “Whoever stands in the middle of the road, gets hit from both sides.”

Kramer says the movie is really about being brave enough to take the first steps to communicate in a politically divided nation. “It’s rare that the audience is able to see and experience what it is like for people to try to come together across the political, racial and geographic divisions in the country. In our film you can see what is happening. happens when a group of frontline activists in south-central Los Angeles travel the country and are able to build community and have difficult conversations with community leaders in rural West Virginia, who are conservative “, did he declare.

A particularly tense moment occurs when activists from both communities meet for the first time. Members in Los Angeles ask those in West Virginia why they voted for Trump. Things calm down when they start sharing personal stories of family members who are drug addicted and incarcerated for long periods of time.

“You can see in real time what this emotional journey looks like to build a coalition across the dividing lines. You can see in our movie what it is like to have a progressive leader like Van Jones and his team, Jessica Jackson and Louis Reed, step into Trump’s White House and build an alliance with members of that administration including Jared Kushner What it is like to bring together Republican senators and Democratic senators on the issue of criminal justice reform. You can see what it looks like to have leaders from the left and from the right… come together on these issues, ”Kramer said.

Jones reaches a critical point in the film where bipartisan support begins to seem unlikely for the bill’s passage once the sentencing provisions are added. He is reaching out to the Conservatives in hopes of gaining their support in bringing former convict turned activist Louis L. Reed to meet with US Deputy Prosecutor Laurence Leiser at the Department of Justice.

At the time, Reed was working as a national organizer with # cut50, an organization that works through bipartisan efforts to reduce the prison population.

Reed told The Sentinel-Record that his job was to “build a coalition with the voices of those who have been disproportionately affected by draconian sentences in draconian laws.”

Introducing Reed to Leiser, Leiser refuses to shake Reed’s hand, asking him to let him see his introductory report before he speaks to her.

To which Jones said, “You haven’t even listened to it. You can’t just categorize someone and not listen to them. It’s not fair.”

Leiser replies: “As a journalist you must see his introductory report.

“As a human being, you have to listen to him,” Jones replies.

Reed goes on to explain to Leiser that he’s more than what a presentation report says about him. “I am more than anything written about me. I am a father, husband, son. I am a licensed clinician in the state of Connecticut. I have a master’s degree in clinical counseling. I have a master’s degree in clinical counseling. a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I also have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, all of which I obtained during my incarceration.

To which Leiser replies, “Isn’t that a great thing? In the federal system, you have learned all of these things.

Reed doesn’t give up, explaining, “I didn’t learn these things through the institution that subsidizes my studies. I was very lucky because my family and friends funded me. I didn’t. shouldn’t be accepted. I’m taking these conversations … to the people inside and telling them that there are people who don’t want you to come home. “

“I think (Jones) was trying to accomplish one of two things,” Reed said. “Number one, humanizing people who have been affected by outdated and very frankly institutionalized racist laws. I think that was a major goal. And I think if there was a secondary goal, which he was trying to achieve. to do was to have a human conversation with what he thought was another sane, just empathetic human being. “

Reed said neither Leiser nor Cotton was convinced by their efforts to help support the bill.

“He was definitely a voice the Tories listened to. And we tried to bridge the gap between whoever and everyone we thought we could win. It wasn’t a Republican problem. Republicans at their best believe in freedom Democrats at their best believe in justice. And what we were trying to demonstrate is that this is an American problem. And we should all believe in freedom and justice for all. Not for some people in the wealthy parts of the corner of our country, not for some people in the wealthy corners of our country, with every person, anywhere in between, ”Reed said.

Regarding Leiser’s behavior at their meeting, Reed said, “What you have to achieve in every drama, you need a protagonist and you need to have an antagonist. Where would Superman be without Lex Luther? Where would Batman be without him? Joker? Where would Tom be without Jerry? You’ve got to have someone who’s going to eventually stand between you and move on. And one of the things my grandma used to say is, “Right before you have the greatest opportunity of your life, you still have to face the greatest opposition. And so Leiser and Tom Cotton, they happen to be playing the opposing roles in this drama … and eventually we were able to get the greatest opportunity, ”he said.

Reed says people need to see this movie for two reasons.

“I think this movie does one of two things. I think it tells the story of people who have been crying for a long time. And when I mean, people who have been crying for a long time, I mean, like, you know, the folks in the western part of Chicago, in the Counties of California, Bridgeport, Connecticut, right? I think that tells the story of people whose voices were cut off due to excessive prosecution and disproportionate punishment, “he said.

“I think the second thing is it also shows how some things can be done in Washington, DC, during a stalemate moment, when everyone is saying, ‘You can’t work with this administration. “I think it injects a ray of hope into politics that people, ordinary people, like the Louis L. Reeds of the world, that Topeka K. Sams of the world, that we can do certain things, if we stay the course. , and if we just, you know, work to get in the middle, we can bring the two sides together. ”

Reed now works as the senior director of memberships and partnerships for the Reform Alliance, a bipartisan organization of which Van Jones was the CEO of the startup, co-founded by Jay-Z.

One of the film’s producers, Christina McClarty Arquette, told The Sentinel-Record: “It’s a crisis. It’s an issue that we all have to come together on. I hope people will watch it, and just at the level of human beings to look into their own hearts and into their own selves and ask how they can help. “

“And so my hope for the film is that no matter what your political views, your background, what you think about these issues, you can sit back and see an attempt to try to build bridges around these issues and then create your own judgment or a decision on what works in this story, ”Kramer said.

“And maybe you know what went wrong and what went wrong. And how can bridge building work in the future?”

The screening will be followed by a panel featuring Brandon Kramer, Lance Kramer, the film’s producer, and Reed.

Van Jones, Sheriff Martin West and Virgie Walker walk through downtown Welch, W.Va., in a scene from “The First Step”. Photo courtesy of Meridian Hill Pictures and Magic Labs Media. – Photo submitted

Van Jones, Kim Kardashian, Alice Johnson, Louis L. Reed and Alex Guditch of # cut50 gather around a cell phone to watch President Trump deliver a First Step Act speech in a scene from "The first step." Photo courtesy of Meridian Hill Pictures and Magic Labs Media.  - Photo submitted

Van Jones, Kim Kardashian, Alice Johnson, Louis L. Reed and Alex Guditch of # cut50 gather around a cell phone to watch President Trump deliver a First Step Act speech in a scene from “The First Step.” Photo courtesy of Meridian Hill Pictures and Magic Labs Media. – Photo submitted

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