Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her new weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
Kim Kardashian's two-hour documentary special, Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project, isn't something most true-crime aficionados need to make time for. It's competently made and has earnest intentions — but it's nothing we haven't seen done before, and better. Really, the only thing setting it apart from other programming like it is Kardashian West herself. At the same time, Kardashian West is exactly what gives The Justice Project value... for people who aren't true-crime aficionados, and who haven't read and heard as much as we more regular consumers of the genre about mandatory sentencing, institutional bias in the courts, and other grim unfairnesses of the criminal "justice" system. Taken only as two hours of television, the documentary isn't very interesting; taken as two hours of television that Kardashian West's powerful, ubiquitous brand will put in front of millions of new eyeballs, it's fascinating.
Let's talk about the actual Project first, which is basically a filmed account of Kardashian West's awakening to serious problems in the carceral system, and her using her formidable powers to try to change the fates of a handful of prisoners who were badly represented, too harshly sentenced, incorrectly denied parole or clemency, or otherwise screwed over by the system. The Justice Project features a predictable series of platitudes from our heroine about second chances, families doing time along with the prisoners, and looking at incarcerated people as people and not just numbers. There's also myriad shots of Kardashian West modeling "active listening" as attorneys and family members tell their stories (and a couple of unfortunate ones in which it's clear that, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Kardashian West isn't wearing a brassiere...in a law office).
But despite the faint whiff of self-congratulation that attends the proceedings, Kardashian West seems sincere and determined, and occasionally you get a glimpse of a relatable human underneath the lip gloss and the performative nodding. One of The Justice Project's subjects, Dawn Jackson, murdered the relative who had molested her for years; the molestation wasn't mentioned as a mitigating factor during her trial, and Jackson got life plus 25 years. Kardashian West reacts to the extent of the abuse Jackson suffered by snapping that "I'd take one for the whole family, and I'd go kill that person" — a rare, and appealing, flare of vengefulness from a woman who is customarily extremely managed and controlled. The special isn't innovative, but it's well crafted, and many of the talking-head interviews with family or fellow inmates are quite affecting; Jackson's brother's account of their childhood is powerful and poignant. It even introduced me to the concept of "telephone muling" in drug organizations. It's got some substance.
Again, though, the special itself is almost beside the point. It's easy to make fun of Kardashian West, to drag her for treating a massive systemic issue like a hobby, to roll our eyes at her assertion that she's "reading the law" to better understand the nuts and bolts of the cases she's involved in. And the tendency of VIPs who attach themselves to causes to act as though 1) they're the first to discover the injustice in question, and 2) their fame confers significance on the issue is a little off-putting. But that a Person as Very Important, or at least Very Well-Known, as Kardashian West has discovered the issue of wrongful sentencing and has hung a 1000-watt lantern on it with her fame is significant. In that way, The Justice Project is sort of like Kim Kardashian West herself. She's famous for being famous, and I'd argue that her cultural value, for lack of a better term, isn't in anything she'd accomplished prior to getting famous, necessarily, but in starting conversations and analyses of cultural value more broadly. Why do we pay attention to the people and reality shows we do? What does it mean for us a society that Kardashian West probably has better name recognition than Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Roxane Gay?
I don't know the answers to those questions, but it's worth thinking about. The Justice Project is worthwhile in the same way: it may be formulaic as a documentary, but as a documentary produced and promoted by Kardashian West, it has the potential to get itself and the issues it confronts — the ripple effects of childhood abuse; the uneven playing field for low-income defendants; et cetera and so on — in front of viewers might otherwise not have have known where Oxygen even is on their dials. Even if you dismiss Kardashian West's activism out of hand, the special still raises compelling questions worth grappling with... like why a reality star, brand mogul, and wife of hip-hop legend has to get involved before a grandma who served 22 years for a non-violent drug offense can get clemency. Or why a bipartisan prison-reform bill stalled until Kardashian West put herself in front of President Trump to advocate for it. Or whether her ability to deal with that particular devil puts Kardashian West in a unique position to get things done, and should be celebrated instead of ridiculed.
The Justice Project, like just about any other debut in these pandemic times, is weirdly timed. On the one hand, justice reforms might seem like they can wait; on the other, incarcerated people around the country are bracing for a more severe impact from COVID-19 than other populations, an additional punishment for the over-sentenced or wrongfully convicted that qualifies as cruel and unusual. But overall, it's not terribly timely or original. As a viewing experience, it's not all that compelling — but the fact that it exists is.
Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project premieres on Oxygen Sunday Apil 5 at 7:00 PM ET
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Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.