Amend: The Fight for America makes even the driest history lively and digestible for a mainstream audience thanks to an all-star line-up, solid research, and an endlessly vital message.
Whatever your feelings about Netflix, it’s difficult to argue that the streaming giant isn’t clever. If you’re going to release a six-part legal docuseries about a single constitutional amendment, which comes complete with excerpts from historical documents dating back to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, then the best way to make that palatable to a mainstream audience is by having some of the most famous actors in the world do all the reading. If a learned scholar in a tweed jacket and a pair of specs hosted Amend: The Fight for America, that’d be one thing. But Will Smith? That’s another thing entirely.
Of course, the Fourteenth Amendment is, as the series claims, at the center of the promise of America – it’s the touching-up of the Constitution that granted rights and citizenship to the formerly enslaved. Of course, it wasn’t that simple, and you’d be bonkers to suggest that the path to equality was a straight one, or that it isn’t in many ways still winding its way through an America that can’t help but litter it with obstacles. But the fact that one of the biggest movie stars in the world is telling you this, accompanied by other heavy-hitters like Samuel L. Jackson and Mahershala Ali, proves the enormous significance of the amendment and why it’s worth talking about for six hours, especially during Black History Month and a global pandemic.
Netflix has previous with this sort of thing. Ava DuVernay’s 13th concerned itself with the preceding amendment, but it was hardly making the point that the legal abolition of slavery in 1865 actually ended slavery. Instead, it contended that it just gave way to other forms of state-sponsored racial suppression, from convict leasing to Jim Crow to the War on Drugs to the booming prison-industrial complex. Amend makes a similar point – several, actually – about tokenistic progress masking continuing attempts at stifling African-American reintegration post-Reconstruction. Tracing the fight for equality through history in lively but dense talking-head interviews, archival materials, and spare celebrity readings, Amend returns time and again to the promises of the Fourteenth Amendment and the efforts of America not to keep them. History repeats, patterns emerge, and new obstacles are erected to stymie progress. In all this, the same, humble goal of equality for all remains unchanged.
For a right-minded individual in 2021, it seems almost absurd that people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, and those who happened to be born in a different country and moved elsewhere for reasons that almost always weren’t their fault, should have to fight so ceaselessly and determinedly just to be treated as human. That, one suspects, justifies a docuseries like Amend: The Fight for America, which is a reminder above all else that the fight has been waged in courtrooms and on the streets since the Civil War and continues apace to this day. From slave-turned-abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage, to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter; the ever-evolving frontlines of the battle for equality. There’s plenty of dry legalese in Amend, but its essential argument is comprehensible to all.