I can’t remember ever reviewing a television show before, let alone recommending one, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.
Amend: The Fight for America is a six-part Netflix documentary hosted by Will Smith. It’s about the on-going struggle for equal rights in America seen through the history and interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Amend first aired in February of this year.
OK, I get it — six hours on American constitutional history and jurisprudence might not seem like gripping television. But Amend really is fabulous.
Amend includes performances by Samuel L. Jackson, Laverne Cox and other actors playing historical figures, presenting excerpts from their speeches, letters, and debates.
There are interviews with legal experts and historians including Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and civil rights lawyer Al Gerhardstein who acted as lead counsel for James Obergefell in the Supreme Court’s same sex marriage decision Obergefell v. Hodges.
These are all interwoven with archival news footage and original graphic material.
Together they bring to life what might seem like dry academic or legal disputes. In reality, the 14th Amendment lies at the heart of some of the most important and heated debates in the American society today.
A bit of background: The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments are collectively known as the Reconstruction Amendments because they were ratified between 1865 and 1870 during the reconstruction period following the US Civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th established equal protection under the law, and the 15th established voting rights regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” These three amendments essentially re-founded the country at the end of the Civil War.
The 14th Amendment guarantees “equal protection of the laws” to everyone in the US, citizens and non-citizens alike. But what does “equal” really mean?
Amend follows the history of the 14th Amendment from before its ratification in 1868 right up to today. Along the way, it looks at important issues such as citizenship, civil rights, women’s rights, marriage equality and immigration, all of which are deeply entwined with the 14th. Each episode takes a deep dive into these questions, examining the what’s at stake, the people involved, and the important legal decisions. It’s both informative and dramatic.
One thing that struck me throughout the series was how often the Supreme Court got it wrong. Especially in the early years after ratification, the Court’s decisions consistently narrowed the interpretation of the 14th upholding racial segregation and Jim Crow laws for example. I suppose it’s not surprising for a court to be conservative – that’s kind of their job. But the downright regressiveness of the US Supreme Court over much of its history should leave no one under any illusions about the Court’s biases and inclinations.
In each generation, new debates about equality spark controversy, anger and sometimes bloodshed in the US. Amend does a wonderful job showing how the 14th Amendment has been and continues to be a focal point for our continuing struggle for equality. It proves that while the Constitution provides the framework for those struggles, progress relies on the active and persistent efforts of the people.