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‘Amend’: Will Smith spotlights U.S. heroes, villains in the long fight for equality

Academics, activists, journalists and actors celebrate the 14th Amendment in the invaluable, vital and enlightening six-part Netflix docuseries.

Will Smith is the host of the Netflix docuseries “Amend: The Fight for America.”
Will Smith is the host of the Netflix docuseries “Amend: The Fight for America.”
Kyle Christy/NETFLIX ©2021

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” — The 14th Amendment, ratified on July 9, 1868.

If only it were that simple and that enforceable.

In the invaluable, vital and enlightening six-part Netflix docuseries “Amend,” host and executive producer Will Smith is our tour guide as an all-star roster of academics, activists, journalists and actors (portraying pivotal historical figures) celebrate the great Americans who fought, and in many cases gave their lives, for the 14th Amendment and its subsequent enforcement through the decades — and shine a deservedly unforgiving spotlight on the unpatriotic and despicable forces that have resorted and continue to resort to unimaginably horrific words and deeds to suppress equality.

This is must-see viewing for everyone who believes in the all-encompassing, freedom-guaranteeing powers of the 14th Amendment, everyone who says they believe in the 14th Amendment but carries themselves otherwise, and everyone in between. Yes, at times at feels as if we’re sitting in a college freshman lecture hall and we should be taking notes, and yes, there are moments when “Amend” feels repetitive — but we have to keep repeating ourselves about the real meaning of freedom and equality for ALL American citizens some 150 years after the passage of the 14th Amendment because it’s far too evident on a daily basis that far too many self-appointed patriots don’t practice what the Amendment not only preaches but mandates.

Moving about on a simple but visually compelling stage resembling a museum exhibit, Smith does a superb job of walking us through the fight for equal rights in America, from the Civil War through relatively recent movements in which women and the LGBTQ community have battled long and with great courage and determination for their inalienable rights. “The 14th Amendment is a promise: protection, equality, due process, and liberty,” says Smith. “We are all human beings, deserving of empathy and dignity.”

Not so fast, said the Confederacy. Not all human beings are equal, said the architects of the fake news, “Lost Cause” revisionist history, that made the ludicrous and monstrous claim that life was pretty darn good for everyone in the South before the Civil War. Not in my America, said the KKK and the Jim Crow laws.

Mahershala Ali portrays Frederick Douglass in “Amend: The Fight for America.”
Mahershala Ali portrays Frederick Douglass in “Amend: The Fight for America.”
Netflix

For every great American hero such as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg celebrated in “Amend,” we’re reminded of un-American villains such as Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, who delivered the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), ruling that the Constitution was not meant to include citizenship for African Americans, whether they were enslaved or free; President Andrew Johnson, the reactionary racist who succeeded the assassinated Lincoln, and Alabama politician Bull Connor, who openly encouraged and facilitated violence against anyone supporting the civil rights movement and had his henchmen unleash dogs and turn on the fire hoses against Black teenagers and children.

Directors Kenny Leon and Reinaldo Marcus Green do a superb job of weaving historical photos, archival footage, simple but effective animation and powerfully effective onstage readings from a bevy of celebrities, including Sterling K. Brown, Daveed Diggs, Samuel L. Jackson, Lena Waithe, Larry Wilmore (who also executive produced), Jae Suh Park and Yara Shahidi, among others. The actors are not in costume; they each take the stage wearing muted, modern clothing, as if performing in a streamlined, off-Broadway production. Mahershala Ali is quietly commanding as the writer/statesmen/abolitionist Frederick Douglass; based on the segments we see here, I’d sign up immediately for a one-man show starring Ali as Douglass. Pedro Pascal’s deceptively low-key but immensely powerful readings as Abraham Lincoln make it feel as if we’re hearing Lincoln’s words for the first time.

“Amend” doesn’t sugarcoat the complicated history of some figures such as Lincoln, who for a time was aggressively pushing for the colonization of Blacks, telling Douglass in a meeting, “The place I’m thinking about having for a colony is Central America.”

Cut to Smith, who says, “Wait, what? The enlightened, progressive president, who ultimately ended slavery, first wanted to send Black Americans to Costa Rica?”

After a deep dive into the 14th Amendment and its repercussions for Black Americans in the first three episodes, “Amend” expands to include self-contained looks at the women’s movement, the fight for same-sex marriage and the American immigrant dream in the final three shows — but always tying these noble causes to that 1868 amendment that in many ways signified the birth of our second Independence Day.