Believe it or not, there are some things in this world that are bigger than Kim Kardashian West. And while we could spend time examining how celebrity worship, obsessive social media use and cultural appropriation have all played a part in her and her family’s rise to fame, the subject of “The Justice Project,” a new documentary on Oxygen, is bigger than any debate around her motives.
You, like many, may not agree with Kardashian West’s decision to become a criminal justice reform advocate. Maybe you question her motives. But if the only thing you can focus on while watching this documentary is the host, you are missing the entire point. I’ve had my own doubts about the reality TV star, but in my opinion, this project suggests her intentions are true. Because for once in her life Kim Kardashian West is not the star of “The Justice Project” — the people she’s supporting and empowering in this movement are.
For once in her life Kim Kardashian is not the star of “The Justice Project,” the people she’s supporting and empowering in this movement are.
The documentary takes the devastating impact of the mass incarceration of black and brown people and makes it real through four key stories. It’s an issue that is more relevant than we may realize. The United States locks up more people per capita than any other nation in the world, with over 2.3 million people confined nationwide, and over 65 million people have a criminal record. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, every year over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people are admitted to jail 10.6 million times each year. At least one in four people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year — often those dealing with poverty, mental illness and substance use disorders, whose problems only worsen with incarceration.
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In this way, socioeconomic deficits fuel a vicious cycle of incarceration that also sweeps up plenty of actual victims. Kardashian West recognizes everyone does not have the same privilege or margin for error, even if those whose hard times are a direct result of traumatic events.
Illustrating this point, in the documentary, we are introduced to Dawn Jackson, a woman who was convicted at age 27 of killing her step-grandfather. Although Jackson was reportedly raped and molested by her step-grandfather that information was not considered during her sentencing. “Why didn’t my past matter?” she asks in the film.
The documentary also notes that over half of women who are incarcerated experience abuse before they are imprisoned. Such was the case for Alexis Martin, who pled guilty to killing the man who she says was sex-trafficking her as a teenager. Both Dawn Jackson and Alexis Martin were pushed by the prosecution to accept plea deals despite what seemed to be mitigating circumstances. Their stories, their histories and their trauma were ignored by a system that is supposed to protect its victims — a crucial theme that runs throughout the documentary. It’s a complicated issue, and the fact that it was included in the film is a good sign: Kardashian West isn’t shying away from the gray areas.
Their stories, their histories, and their trauma were ignored by a system that is supposed to protect its victims — a crucial theme that runs throughout the documentary.
The kind of reform Kardashian West is advocating for doesn’t happen because of one person; it takes a community of dedicated people to make such institutional change happen over time. In “The Justice Project,” Kardashian West is careful to focus the spotlight on the efforts of the many advocates and lawyers pushing hard on the ground every day. These people include advocates like Dr. Marc Howard, a professor of government and law at Georgetown University and the director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, a nonpartisan organization that brings together leading scholars, practitioners and students to examine the problem of mass incarceration from multiple perspectives.
By highlighting their work, Kardashian West takes an approach that feels, thankfully, grounded in humility. “I just saw something that was unfair to me. I am here to learn,” she says in the documentary. That humility allows space for viewers to focus on the why this movement is so important.
And a movement it truly is becoming. “You never know where the help is coming from,” says David Sheppard in the documentary. Sheppard’s case was brought to the attention of Kardashian West partly by Sheppard’s friend, George Trudel, who had his own life sentence commuted in 2019. Trudel wrote a letter to Kardashian West that helped bring attention to Sheppard’s case. Such is what happens when we do not close our selves off from another’s humanity. Throughout this documentary, we see the results of what happens when we make snap judgments about individuals before hearing about their cases, something Kardashian West admits that she initially struggled with.
Most important, the documentary asks viewers to bear witness to the power of rehabilitation instead of retribution; our decadeslong obsession with the latter has corrupted this system. That is the key takeaway, not Kim Kardashian West. Yes, it’s true that fame dominates and drives our culture. But clearly, this particular famous person’s work and leverage are highlighting the truth about the consequences of mass incarceration in America. You don’t have to be a fan of Kim Kardashian West — or even like her — to appreciate this message.
Melissa Kimble is a Chicago-based writer and cultural brand strategist. She is also the founder of #blkcreatives, a collective that equips and empowers Black culture’s most impactful creators.