Kim Kardashian West’s vision of justice is, to her, common sense.
The star has undergone an extensive rebrand — announcing, in a Vogue cover story last year, that she was working towards becoming a lawyer, after successfully petitioning President Trump for clemency in the case of Alice Johnson, a nonviolent offender sentenced to life in prison. This coming into consciousness is now the subject of the feature-length documentary “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project,” on which the subject describes becoming aware of Johnson’s case. “I knew nothing about the system at all except for just that I know what feels fair in my heart and what doesn’t,” Kardashian West says. Later, she tells a group of prisoners assembled to listen to her speak, “I just saw something that seemed really unfair to me, and I thought that I had a voice.”
She does indeed have a voice — one that tends less to cut through cultural noise than to create it. This documentary converts into unpleasant spectacle what was always implicit in the star’s legal project: That, for her, reform of a system that causes chaos in the lives of so many, particularly of black Americans, comes in the package of the beneficent gift of individual attention to telegenic and unthreatening cases, rather than… reform. Leaving aside that in any other historical moment, Kardashian West would not have the president’s ear, it’s obviously not sustainable to alleviate the mass crowding of America’s prisons solely by appealing for clemency for specific prisoners. And this documentary isn’t really suggesting that, either, or about much more than the need to pivot a brand — that of the entertainer and her famous family — that wasn’t previously built to withstand times of crisis. (In boom times, one may recall, they were “businesswomen” first.) The documentary’s title says it all: Justice is a part of the whole endeavor, but Kim Kardashian West comes first.
Inasmuch as there’s a structure here, it’s focused on Kardashian West’s continuing education, procured through the efforts of the incarcerated. Her path to her J.D. does not include law school — an unorthodox method that has the practical effect of making those for whom she advocates her teachers. One young woman in prison appears visibly uncomfortable as she narrates to Kardashian West, and to us, a personal history involving rape and neglect; “Alexis is another story that just breaks my heart,” Kardashian West tells the camera. Kardashian West is among a team of advocates working on cases like Alexis’s, but the star’s tendency to prioritize speaking about cases in charged emotional terms makes one wonder what she thinks would be fair for people whose stories don’t break her heart, or that scare her a bit. That it is on Alexis to heighten Kardashian West’s emotions in order to get her attention suggests the star’s ideal future for the criminal justice reform movement functions something like GoFundMe does for the healthcare industry: A patch whereby the best story wins.
Kardashian West’s intentions may matter less than her results, which — in the life of Alice Johnson, at least — have been real. But there’s something garish and gross about a star personalizing an important cause by asking vulnerable people to open a vein on-camera and then never bothering to get back to the cause itself. The idea of decarceration, here, is an opportunity to listen, and to be shown listening. Kardashian West has every right to make money through various endeavors while keeping her volunteer work going in the backbeat of her life, but there’s something grim and too obvious by half about shots of her calling Alice Johnson, to tell her that Trump has granted clemency, in full glam on the set of a photoshoot. An always-on personality who, when not in aspiring-lawyer mode, tends to explicitly acknowledge the thuddingly Warholian nature of the existence she’s chosen, Kardashian West metabolizes everything in her line of sight as content. This includes a genuine national crisis, reframed as stories that changed the heart and mind of a famous person.
Out of ideas and having used all the footage it had of Kardashian West meeting her public, the documentary ends with its subject — her, of course, not the cause — reading a dictionary definition of “justice.” One doesn’t sense she’s edged any closer to really getting it.