What is the 14th Amendment? If it took you longer than five seconds to answer, then there’s a series that’s required viewing. “Amend: The Fight for America” is a six-part docuseries spanning six hours created by Robe Imbriano and Tom Yellin, directed by Kenny Leon (“American Son”) and Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”), and hosted by Will Smith. The series takes viewers through the importance of the 14th Amendment—which outlines the rights of citizens under “the equal protection of the law”—and how it’s affected everything from black folks and women’s voting rights to abortion to gay marriage. Throughout its six episodes, the series revisits historic court rulings that have been engendered by the law.
“Amend: The Fight for America” is corny in parts, and serious-minded in others. But a charismatic Will Smith, a few little known facts, and a particularly uplifting episode give this docuseries about the importance of the 14th Amendment a reason to exist.
To guide us through the chronology of the 14th Amendment, “Amend” utilizes a three-pronged approach. The first comes in the form of talking heads like Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson and the program’s executive producer Larry Wilmore providing insight to the present-day repercussions of events like the Dred Scott case and Brown v. Board of Education. The other delivery method comes by way of celebrities like Daveed Diggs, Pedro Pascal, Aja Naomi King, etc. monologuing the words written by the famous and little-known figures surrounding these seismic events. Mahershala Ali, for instance, voices Frederick Douglass. Though animation is used to depict traumatic pre-20th century events like the Colfax Massacre, the producers veer away from the medium when staging the readings, and avoid the temptation to slap wigs and makeup on participating celebrities. As Ali speaks directly to the camera, he’s dressed in a sharp blazer, while images of Douglass surround Ali on the minimalist set.
Beyond those who know very little about the 14th Amendment, it’s not altogether clear who is the audience for this series. Is it like-minded individuals who are already deep in the fight for civil liberties? Or those from the other side of the aisle who disregard institutional inequities? Considering how episode one concludes with a plea for reconciliation, the series might want to literally amend the good people on both sides.
The uneven program is often at its most stimulating while unearthing major forgotten figures of the past. The Civil Rights-focused episode three “Wait” covers gay leader Bayard Rustin. The fourth, “Control,” finds women’s rights activist Pauli Murray advocating against sexism. The sixth, “Promise,” examines Chinese-American Wong Kim Ark’s struggle to gain citizenship in 1897.
Smith, the blockbuster actor with middle-America appeal, who is also starring in the upcoming Marcus Green-directed biopic “King Richard,” is the perfect choice to host the heady docuseries. Relying on an overly earnest, on-the-nose disposition, he employs rhetorical devices to explain to viewers the hurt racism springs. In “Wait,” he explicates why asking black people to be patient for equal rights is detrimental to systemic change. Smith’s inherent charm and inoffensive wit—the tools that made him a bankable star—allow him to transmit the docuseries’ message to viewers as though they were third graders. That’s not a knock against Smith. He might be the only person who could imbue this full-hearted program without enough spirit to make watching it feel less like eating your peas.
The strongest episode in “Amend,” by a pretty wide margin, is the LGBTQ+-focused “Love.” Because the victories at the center of the gay rights movement have recently occurred, the episode is less reliant on actors providing pull quotes of famous figures (one of the exceptions is a poignant yet resolute Laverne Cox speaking the words of James Baldwin) and instead employs interviews with key present-day figures. The first time we see a subject nearly brought to tears happens when Johns Hopkins History professor Martha Jones, herself the product of an interracial marriage, imparts the importance of Loving v. Virginia to her family. Al Gerhardstein, who tried Obergefell v. Hodges before the Supreme Court, guides us through the other court proceedings that served as precedent for its historic legalization of gay marriage. However, it’s Jim Obergefell himself who provides the program with its deepest tear-jerking moments, as he recalls how his husband battled ALS, and how the pair equally fought to have their marriage recognized in Ohio.
In other episodes, the staid series struggles to replicate those moments with Jones and Obergefell, and even in the Black Lives Matter and DACA-themed sixth episode the events hit key intellectual points but only glance at their emotional core. Instead it’s the stories within “Love,” and the way that the showrunners reproduce the warmth of its recent history, that make the docuseries’ long journey worth it.
All six episodes screened for review.