'Amend: The Fight for America': TV Review

Josh Kulic/ NETFLIX
Brisk yet meticulously researched.

Will Smith hosts a Netflix docuseries about the constitutional amendment that comprises "the center of the promise of America."

The United States was founded in 1776, but the modern America we live in today, argues Netflix's new six-part legal docuseries Amend, was born in 1868, with the ratification of the 14th amendment in the wake of the Civil War. Originally intended to grant citizenship to the formerly enslaved, the 14th, by promising all citizens “equal protection of the laws,” has offered an undeviating if obstacle-choked path toward equality for Black Americans and other groups of color, women and LGBTQ people. According to host Will Smith, the amendment is “the center of the promise of America.”

You read that right: Netflix’s maximalist programming ethos has led to one of the biggest movie stars in the world anchoring a six-hour elaboration on a single constitutional amendment and its admittedly enormous significance to generations of Americans. Amend’s blinding star wattage is furthered bolstered by the dozens of celebrities — among them Mahershala Ali, Samuel L. Jackson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Laverne Cox and Yara Shahidi — who dramatize excerpts from historical documents on a spare, abstract set, often to powerful effect. At the very least, the series, a spiritual successor to Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, proves that PBS topics need not be presented with PBS staidness.

Perhaps it’s just as well that Amend debuts not only during Black History Month, but also the pandemic, when the quality of schooling has slumped for most students. Brisk yet meticulously researched, the educational series makes as lively as possible the rhetorical hair-splitting within the courts that tends to have an outsized impact on the populace. Talking-head interviews with historians and legal scholars dive deep into, for instance, the years-long fight to confer citizenship to Black Americans during and after the Civil War and the major role played by slave-turned-abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass in convincing Abraham Lincoln to pursue that conferral as a policy goal. The first three episodes are dedicated to the two steps forward and one step back of racial progress since Reconstruction; the remaining installments discuss how the promises of the 14th were expanded in later decades and centuries to include the rights of women, LGBTQ individuals and Asian and Latino immigrants.

Executive-produced by Larry Willmore (who also appears as a talking head), Amend might be most valuable, especially for younger viewers, in bringing history alive through strikingly presented archival materials, hyper-expressive animated sequences, even those celebrity readings. Unless you’re a history buff or a law-school grad, you’ll probably learn something new about a forgotten massacre or why exactly Griswold v. Connecticut was such an important precedent for Roe v. Wade.

But much of the documentary is deeply familiar, too, such as its overview of Jim Crow, which defanged the 14th, or how the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter protests are the contemporary manifestations of earlier movements. Not surprisingly, then, the chapters that succeed most as entertainment are those where we’re less familiar with the subject, or where there’s a close-up on a “protagonist.” The introductory installment, which ends with the hard-fought passage of the 14th, is fascinating for its delineations of the schisms within the abolitionist movement and its candor about Lincoln’s tendencies to think like a politician first and the Great Emancipator second. The fourth episode is centered around civil rights icons Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Pauli Murray (the subject of a new documentary by the directors of RBG). And the most cohesive and moving hour centers on Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff whose 2015 case made gay marriage the law of the land.

Amend acknowledges, early and often, that rights granted on paper don’t always translate to immediate change on the ground, especially when state or local officials assert their own interpretation of the law. And though the historical gender gap between Black men and Black women is finally brought up in the women’s rights episode — featuring Kimberlé Crenshaw, the influential legal thinker who coined the term "intersectional" — it would’ve been helpful to get a firmer sense of the disparities in the rights between Black men and women before the civil rights movement and the Second Wave. But for a series with such a large scope and often bone-dry subject matter, Amend makes legal history approachable and digestible.

Premieres Wednesday, Feb. 17, on Netflix