A look into the feature-length documentary and celebrity activism
Kim Kardashian West is a name we all know. Doesn’t matter which timezone you live in or if you actually watch the reality series Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the extent of her fame and influence (and that of her family’s) spans multiple industries, nations and platforms. We’ve all witnessed her transformation and extensive rebrand, most notably through her Vogue cover last May. It announced Kardashian West’s awakening: an almost unexpected pivot to law after the star’s successful clemency petition for Alice Johnson, a nonviolent offender sentenced to life in prison.
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I followed Kim Kardashian West on Instagram back in 2013 as her relationships with Kanye West and Christine Centenera grew. I fell in love with the Kardashian-West love story (but not the Bound music videos) and bookmarked Kim’s new looks and magazine covers. That’s about as deep as this mild fangirl goes.
But fan or not, when news of her continuing education and interest in criminal justice broke, people shared their admiration and skepticism. I couldn’t decide where to fall in the spectrum because while I think it’s admirable to use one’s voice for good, part of me questioned the intention.
Enter: Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project, a feature-length documentary following the star’s legal crusade and the people facing different scenarios within the US criminal justice system. The journey begins on Twitter, when Kardashian West saw a video about Alice Johnson, which argued that after more than 20 years, she should no longer be in prison. This prompts action from the star, leading her to contact family friend and lawyer Shawn Holley, and later meet with criminal justice reform group #Cut50. Johnson’s freedom marks the awakening of Kim’s advocacy.
This is so unfair… https://t.co/W3lPINbQuy
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) October 26, 2017
Through letters from prison sent to her, her team and #Cut50, select people were asked to share their stories and their trauma on-camera as team Kardashian West attempts to humanize them beyond their mistakes and ultimately fight for decarceration. “I knew nothing about the system at all except for just that I know what feels fair in my heart and what doesn’t,” she says in the documentary. But what was the basis or prerequisite in selecting people and their stories? What is fair in the heart of Kim Kardashian West? Who decides whose cause is worth helping? Does saving one or a few lives absolve America of its prison problem? I don’t know.
Call me a skeptic, but the series could have been less about Kim and more of the collective issue they’re trying to address, or the people and communities that need to be involved. Obviously, I don’t have the answers. If anything though, the documentary shows how crisis and tragedy can be metabolized into content or even monetized.
And regardless of intention, be it for sincere activism and/or to add polish to one’s brand, if Kim Kardashian West’s voice and actions cut through the noise and better the lives of at least few, as in the case of Alice Johnson, does it matter?
Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project aired last April 5, 2020. Stream it on hayu.
Art Alexandra Lara