History In the Making

It took nearly a century to define citizenship and equality in the U.S. Constitution, and another 100 years to begin implementing it. Most people have a general idea of a few of the amendments like the right to free speech (First), women’s right to vote (19th), and this blog’s favorite: the right to a cocktail (21st Amendment). But the most consequential of them all may be one most people don’t know much about: the 14th Amendment (14A).

Now Netflix is giving us a six hour education on the amendment some consider America’s second Declaration of Independence.

History Repeating

Now before your eyes glaze over at the thought of a deep dive into obscure constitutional law, give it a chance. Amend: The Fight for America is a star-studded history lesson, with Will Smith walking us through 250 years of inequality, equality on paper, and equality in practice. It’s important, informative, and just entertaining enough that you feel like you’re learning as opposed to being taught.

Will uses his effortless style to bond with us, and is joined by other stars who recite the words of historical advocates and detractors of civil rights (Mahershala Ali reads Frederick Douglas). Most of the time, they’re in front of panels that remind you of a museum exhibit. They are joined by experts on civil rights history and, in later episodes, modern day players in the movement. I enjoyed that they weren’t in period costumes. They were in everyday clothes while the people they recited were shown in pictures or video. That is enough to set the mood without the camp of putting stars in wigs and waistcoats.

Setting tone on a story that is filled with more losses than wins, more ugliness than rejoicing, is no easy task. Will has a few zingers to lighten the mood while pointing out absurdities and prejudices. But for the most part, this is a history lesson we all need and didn’t get.

Equal Rights & Wrongs

14A was enacted after the Civil War to write citizenship and equal protection into the constitution, protecting the concepts from onerous court rulings. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work out that way. But the passage of 14A serves as a pivot point in American history as well as for the series. Episode one focuses on the run up to the Civil War and 14A’s enactment. Episode two looks at the aftermath and how Supreme Court rulings essentially neutralized it, while the third hour looks at the civil rights protests and rulings that started after World War II.

The last three look at the potential of 14A beyond racial equality; women’s rights, gay rights, and immigrant rights. Amend is at its best when it’s introducing us to lesser known figures in the fights for civil rights. Everyone knows about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But Pauli Murray? Not so much. It makes its strongest emotional connection in episode five when it focuses on marriage equality. Because it’s so recent, most of the participants are still alive, and when they tell their stories, you want to tear up. This brings history to life while the other episodes fail to make that connection.

I’m not gonna lie, this is a tough watch. Centuries of hatred brought to life is gut wrenching. Narrow minded people holding on to power at any cost is angering. But Amend does a good, if not great, job of giving a spoonful of sugar to help viewers swallow the bitter pill.

The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation

I’m having a scotch and soda, LBJ’s favorite drink. The president who pushed through major civil rights legislation would tell his aides to make his drink weaker than his guests so he could keep a clearer head when negotiating.

Cheers!

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