A Service of UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Documentary delves into effort to get prison reform bill passed

Van Jones (right) is featured in the documentary film "The First Step" talking with people about the need to address disparities in U.S. drug sentencing laws.
Meridian Hill Pictures and Magic Labs Media
Van Jones (right) is featured in the documentary "The First Step" talking with people about disparities in U.S. drug sentencing laws.

The acclaimed documentary film “The First Step,” which follows television host Van Jones as he worked to build support for a criminal justice reform bill, is being screened this weekend in Little Rock.

A showing open to the public begins at 6 p.m. at the Central Arkansas Library Systems’ Ron Robinson Theater and will be followed by a panel discussion. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door for $12. The film is also being shown to men and women inmates at the Pulaski County Detention Center.

One of the documentary’s executive producers, Christina Arquette, spoke with KUAR News about the film and screening. Below is a transcript of the edited interview.

KUAR’S MICHAEL HIBBLEN: Tell me a little bit about the legislation that Van Jones, a host at CNN, had worked to get passed [in Congress].

CHRISTINA ARQUETTE: Yeah, so “The First Step” documentary is really an incredible look at a divided America and Van Jones working with both sides in a bipartisan effort to come together and pass the First Step Act. The film features an incredible cast from Van Jones himself and all of his associates that he works with, as well as [Sen.] Cory Booker, [Vice President] Kamala Harris, [Trump presidential advisor] Jared Kushner, [reality TV’s] Kim Kardashian and, yes, even [former President] Donald Trump.

In 2018, the First Step was passed. It is a bill that changes many harsh federal sentences with the goal of reducing the federal prison population. I guess you could say the first step in what people can expect in screening this film is: it doesn't matter which side of the party that you are on or what your political beliefs are. This is a political thriller that is documenting a bipartisan effort to collaborate and work together and make a difference. And I think it's very timely given what's going on in the world right now. I know the filmmakers describe the film as medicine for a broken system. The Kramer brothers, one of them, is in town and will be at this screening participating in the Q and A. Their access to Van Jones and to the Trump White House is incredible, and so you get to see all that behind the scenes footage and in real-time what was happening and the challenges that Van Jones faced.

And, as you noted, Jones tried to work across party lines but ended up being attacked from all sides. What was so controversial about what Jones was trying to get passed?

Well, it wasn’t so much… because when you look at the bill itself, it was supported in a very bipartisan way. Right now they're working on the EQUAL Act, which is also bipartisan, and that eliminates the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. It's now in the Senate, 11 Republicans and 11 Democrats are sponsoring that bill. So it was more than it was Van Jones doing it. Obviously, he's kind of an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, he's CNN analysts and anchor, and so he was putting himself in sort of these kind of rooms with people that don't know what his intentions were, and he was willing to work with anyone on any side and had any conversation to anyone that was willing to listen to him. And under the First Step Act, since that was passed, about 20,000 people have come home. So he said he didn’t care who he had to have the conversation with, he was willing to do whatever it takes to make a change and make a difference. I think it's a beautiful testament to what can happen when everyone comes together and works together to make a change.

The screening at the Ron Robinson Theater for “The First Step” begins tonight at 6 and will include a panel discussion. What can people expect to hear?

Well, the great part about these discussions is it's a beautiful forum for everybody to ask about some of the issues. The Rahman Family Foundation is sponsoring the screening tonight, so Dr. Johanna Rahman will lead this discussion. My husband, David and I will participate, along with some incredible activists and advocates that really are the most important voices on the stage because they are doing all the work on-the-ground and among those panelists are Dream Corps’ Ruby Welch. She is just an unbelievable spokesperson for criminal justice reform. Another panelist is Pamela Winn and Cynetra Freeman. So these incredible women are so impactful because they're the ones on-the-ground really doing the work and restoring dignity for women incarcerated in some of those important human-rights.

The audience will also have the chance to ask some questions as well. And questions can range anything from what the film is about to what filmmaking behind the scene entails. The beautiful thing about the Arkansas Cinema Society is they have created such a robust and flourishing film community in Arkansas and among those are a lot of teen labs that they support where – in fact, I’m giving a lecture to a teen lab – so all of these aspiring Arkansas filmmakers will be sitting in the audience as well wanting to know how they can get involved in making a documentary or feature film or what goes on behind the scenes in creating that. So it’s a really amazing opportunity for the community to come together and have a conversation about criminal justice reform and use the arts to do that.

And finally, the documentary is also being shown in the Pulaski County Detention Center. Tell me about the goal there and what it took to make that happen.

Well again, I give all the credit to Dream Corps and Ruby Welch. Essentially “The First Step” right now is on an impact tour around the country screening in various communities and behind the walls [of prisons and jails]. So it’s really important that the synergy between the community screening tonight and a screening behind the walls happens. And really, when the screening happens behind the walls, it’s the same thing where we screen the film and have an open discussion and dialogue around the film. One of the most profound experiences I ever had was going to a program at [the Arkansas Department of Correction’s unit at] Wrightsville. There's a lot of incarcerated women there and I left there wanting to do more. So for me, these moments are really important just to continue to do the work and make the films that we’re passionate about and hopefully we can create some change.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.