Having already aired director Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” about the legacy of the 13th Amendment, Netflix ups the ante by devoting a six-part series to the 14th with “Amend: The Fight for America.” It’s an ambitious project that mixes various techniques, stars and historians to enliven the history and connect it to the present, with its most conspicuous weakness being the contributions of host and producer Will Smith.
Enacted in 1868, the 14th Amendment has become one of the most-litigated amendments in US history. Its key provisions, promising equal protection for all persons, have proven remarkably elastic, becoming the foundation not only for civil rights but women’s rights, marriage equality (both involving mixed-race and gay couples) and immigrants.
“Amend” employs multiple methods in bringing that history to life and powerfully connecting it to the battles of the 21st century, with the rise of extremist forces rooted in white supremacy. Those narrative wrinkles include animation and dramatic readings, with a gaudy list of actors like Mahershala Ali and Samuel L. Jackson presenting the words of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., respectively.
The early episodes take a deep dive into Reconstruction, the rise of Ku Klux Klan and the Jim Crow era installing a form of “legal apartheid,” as NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill notes.
The timeliest material charts a direct path from the racial backlash then into the heart of modern politics, detailing the importance of the Supreme Court in codifying (and later overturning) discrimination, the use of “home-grown American terrorism” against African-Americans and the extent to which violence was used to mount “a political counter-revolution against Reconstruction,” as historian David Blight explains.
The project also cites the erection of Confederate monuments and efforts to romanticize slavery as “the lost cause” not only in Southern legislatures but in movies and media, from “The Birth of a Nation” through “Gone With the Wind.”
The fourth chapter segues from civil rights to expansion of 14th Amendment protections to women – “stepchildren” of the amendment as originally drafted – followed by marriage and immigrants, including a particularly wrenching look at the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
“Amend” is a significant undertaking in its scope, and the roster of celebrity talent assembled is impressive and eclectic. The one misstep lies in Smith’s folksy transitions, which seem tailored to a school-age audience. Granted, it would be great if kids watched this, but the “Schoolhouse Rock” tone he adopts feels out of step with the other voices telling this story.
Netflix nevertheless deserves considerable credit for lending its muscle to this civics-minded exercise and creating a home for such fare beyond PBS.
“Amend” shines a light on America’s history of inequality, and the 150-year-plus struggle to remedy that as it has played out in the courts and the streets. It’s a reminder that securing the protections granted by the 14th Amendment – like America itself – remains very much a work in progress.
“Amend: The Fight for America” premieres Feb. 17 on Netflix.