This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Kim Kardashian West tends to suffer from a certain illiteracy: a complete inability to read the room.
Earlier this month, as the world cowered in terror amidst a deadly pandemic and public figures grappled with—to varying degrees of success—what they’re able to do to help, she and Taylor Swift reignited their exhausting feud.
If you’re not the kind of person who already knows every single detail and development in the saga of whether Taylor Swift lied about approving the line “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous” in Kanye West’s song “Famous,” then you’re not going to read a detailed recap of it now.
But suffice it to say that Kardashian and Swift discussing any of this at this moment in time made certain people (like me) who are reckoning with what place entertainment news and celebrity culture has at this moment apoplectic. Kim, there’s literally people dying.
That said, it’s interesting, maybe even ironic, that the line “I made that bitch famous” is at the center of all this brouhaha and buffoonery, especially at this point in Kardashian’s career. It is what made Kardashian famous—first, a sex tape; then, social climbing; finally, vapid reality TV—that her harshest critics weaponize against her, essentially dismissing the value of each project because of it.
That’s a liability and, for that matter, an inexcusable instinct as Kardashian launches her latest venture, the new documentary Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project.
The two-hour film airs Sunday night on Oxygen, spotlighting her work on prison reform and educating viewers on institutional failings of justice and, ultimately, humanity. Given the current headlines about the doomed circumstances inmates face against the novel coronavirus pandemic, the project couldn’t be more timely.
The documentary comes almost two years after Kardashian made news for meeting with Donald Trump as part of her crusade to get Alice Marie Johnson, a great-grandmother serving a life sentence for a non-violent offense, freed from jail. And it comes a year after Kardashian revealed that she was studying to take the bar exam and become a lawyer to continue her work.
The Justice Project is the high point of Kardashian’s time on television. She comes off smart, humble, and passionate, ceding the narrating to the inmates presented as case studies for the lack of fairness in sentencing and the lives being wasted and lost to incarceration. And the work that the documentary is spotlighting—Kardashian’s efforts to provide legal support to inmates who she feels deserve release—is, without a doubt, the highlight of her career.
Of course, it really pisses people off when Kim Kardashian is praised.
That’s ludicrous in my mind. Judgment of her pop-culture origin story may be warranted, if dated, but a full-stop dismissal of her entire public existence is ignorant. There’s no point parsing out the value of her reign over celebrity culture, but there is plenty of reason to examine with a critical eye what she does now that she’s there.
In other words, who cares what “made that bitch famous” if this is what she’s doing with the attention.
To that end, one might argue that Kardashian, with obvious exception, has actually been “reading the room” better than many celebrities throughout the Trump era. Even as her husband puts on a red hat and dances with the devil, she’s stayed her course, recognizing the way in which her specific kind of fame could be used for a very specific kind of good.
The straightforward humility with which Kardashian talks about her involvement in these initiatives is surprising. “People ask what my connection is [to this cause] and the truth is I just saw something that seemed really unfair to me and I thought I had a voice,” she says in the documentary. “I’m the first person to say I don’t know much. I’m here because I love to learn and listen.”
The Justice Project begins by recounting the tweet that first caught Kardashian’s attention, that thing “that seemed really unfair.” Mic.com shared a story about Johnson, who, at that point, had served 22 years in prison.
She had worked as a telephone mule, connecting drug dealers and suppliers. That was the extent of her involvement; she never touched the drugs or exchanged the money. When the drug ring was busted, Johnson was sentenced to life in prison plus 25 years—the same amount of time as the Unabomber, for context, but all for a non-violent crime.
“I knew nothing about the system at all, except for just knowing that I know what feels fair in my heart and what doesn’t,” offers Kardashian. She reached out to Alice’s attorney and said “Use me, I want to help her.”
The film then moves on to other cases Kardashian threw her muscle behind.
She listens to the case of Dawn Jackson, who killed her stepfather in self-defense after decades of his raping her, mitigating evidence that was never presented at her trial before she was sentenced to life in prison.
Alexis Martin was 15 years old and being sexually trafficked when she received a life sentence for the aggravated murder of her pimp, but her history and eligibility for protection under safe harbor laws was never invoked.
George Trudel was serving a life sentence because of mandatory minimum sentences after being an accomplice in a murder. The actual killer was freed after seven years.
“People deserve a second chance,” she says. “People can benefit more from rehabilitation more than they can from just being locked up and thrown away.”
The film gives a nuanced look at her awakening to the need for prison reform, her acknowledgment of the complicated feelings there are around it, and makes a plea for compassion for the population of prisoners who are doomed by a fallible justice system.
There seems to always be a reason to talk about Kim Kardashian. I’m just appreciative that there’s finally a good one.