The Hero’s Journey in “Amend: The Fight for 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.”

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.

There’s a lot to admire about “Amend,” a new documentary series from Netflix whose goal is to educate the viewing public on the history of civil rights in America. The project — executive-produced by Will Smith and Larry Wilmore and featuring both on-camera — is the sort of fundamentally educational product that’s unusual from an entertainment company. It’s done in a refreshing tone of complete earnestness, walking the audience through the different permutations of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, that which guarantees equal protection under the law, and ways it is has been used to expand rights for various protected classes. While this may be well-known to some, if you are looking for a teaching tool about recent and not-so-recent history, you could do a great deal worse than this.

“Amend” has a fairly loose structure. Smith, an affable presence who provides a sort of low-pressure template for learning, plays emcee, speaking directly to the camera about the themes of each episode and how they intersect with the Constitutionally-protected idea of equality for all citizens — Black people, women, queer people, immigrants. “The Fourteenth Amendment — it’s okay if you don’t know it by heart, but it is the center of the promise of America,” Smith says in the first episode. Woven in throughout are celebrities — Mahershala Ali, Randall Park, Samira Wiley, and Pedro Pascal, to name just a few — speaking in the voices of historical figures. Yara Shahidi, for instance, is in contemporary dress as she reads the words of “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” author Harriet Jacobs. Cut throughout are contemporary legal scholars (Bryan Stevenson and Emily Bazelon among them) and figures from the news, like Supreme Court plaintiff Jim Obergefell, whose case made same-sex marriage the law of the land.

In short, “Amend” balances enough to keep the viewer perpetually engaged, toggling between various manners of conveying information to move through big American stories, one an episode. It’s perhaps at its best when those stories are about further-flung history — the possibilities of Reconstruction, and the way those possibilities were wrenched away by terror, will come as shocking to many, including those who already know the story but are having it presented here in sharp terms. More recent stories may be better-known but also introduce a certain slackness into the proceedings. For instance, a commentator struggling to pronounce Phyllis Schlafly’s last name before declaring “I’ll just say ‘Mean Phyllis!’” could probably have been left out — not because Schlafly deserves deference, but because “Amend” can in moments seem a bit effortful in its presenting itself as effortless. Similarly, Will Smith breaking down anti-sodomy laws that were only this century struck down gets a little obvious: “I’m just saying,” he tells us, “if somebody tried to tell you that what you and your partner do in the bedroom is illegal, I mean, I bet you’d feel some kind of way about that.”

But then, “Amend” is trying to meet an audience where it is — in this case, scrolling Netflix and seeing a familiar face, then finding stories of real import presented in a relatable way. That some of the more recent history here is presented with studied casualness, is ultimately a gain, even with occasional hiccups: That makes it plainspoken and watchable even for those who know a lot of this history already. “Amend” manages to avoid turning a curious viewer off and doesn’t lose the power of its story — or the clarity of its message — throughout many different speakers emerging onstage. And its clear understanding that the promise of the Constitution often goes unfulfilled keeps this from being alienatingly idealistic to an audience that knows better: “Amend” makes the case for what we were promised while showing what we often get, and encourages viewers to work to bridge that gap.

This series’ politics lean to the left — a striking statement, given that they are rooted ultimately in the rights guaranteed to all Americans by the founders. But “Amend” is the sort of project even conservatives ought to want. It’s a civics lesson that ultimately gains in power from addressing viewers in comprehensive and comprehensible terms about the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and the responsibility people have to defend those rights. In an era in which so much is under debate, the calm rationalism is a small comfort, suggesting that people out there really care about getting things right and leading the way. It’s also a charge to viewers, a welcome one, to continue educating themselves about the country’s past, and the ways it continues to inform our divided present.