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New Netflix series ‘Amend’ with Will Smith explores constitutional equality

Story at a glance

  • While the First and Second Amendments tend to be spoken about the most, many Americans are unaware of the importance of the 14th Amendment.
  • The 14th Amendment laid down the foundation for equal protection under the law, providing a foundation for a number of historic human rights movements.
  • New Netflix series “Amend” co-produced by Will Smith and Larry Wilmore seeks to educate viewers on the history of the 14th Amendment.

It was in 1868 that what some scholars call “the birth of the modern Constitution” took place, when the historic 14th Amendment was finally ratified. Since then, it has become among the most litigated amendments in U.S. history. 

Its key provisions promise equal protection of the law for all citizens of the United States, born and naturalized. While that may seem fairly straightforward, the shifting interpretations of the amendment have paved the way for not only the civil rights movement but legal equality of the sexes, as well as marriage equality in its many forms and the battle over immigration rights. 

Yet, despite the obvious importance of the 14th Amendment, many Americans are still unaware of its origin story. This is where the new Netflix series “Amend” comes into the picture. Released on the digital platform on Feb. 17, the limited series seeks to inform viewers on the history and importance of the amendment. 

“From its ratification to today,” narrator Will Smith says in the series’ intro. “Its relevance has never wavered, and yet, we barely know it exists. The Fourteenth Amendment — it’s okay if you don’t know it by heart, but it is the center of the promise of America.” 

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” the 14th Amendment reads, “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.”

A modern retelling of history 

Hosted by actor Will Smith, “Amend” calls upon a fresh method of educating viewers about the nuances of U.S. history, employing the use of historical photographs, movie clips, commentary by a diverse host of contemporary legal scholars, as well as figures in the news. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these retellings, though, is the weaving in of celebrities such as Mahershala Ali, Randall Park, Samira Wiley and Pedro Pascal to play the part of historical figures. In the first episode, we see Ali wearing a contemporary suit while reciting lines from the powerful speeches and writings of Frederick Douglass. 

Smith executive-produced the series with the Emmy-winning writer Larry Wilmore, who said that one of the main challenges in bringing “Amend” to life was providing key insights into such an expansive timeline, starting far before the ratification of the amendment and bringing us all the way to the present. The goal, though, was to make an overview of the shifting provisions of the 14th Amendment more accessible to anyone interested in its history and prove to viewers just how important the amendment truly is. 

“People just don’t know what the 14th amendment is,” Wilmore said to The Guardian. “The first, second and fifth are hogging up most of the oxygen. And yet the 14th has been the most resilient and durable. It’s doing a lot of heavy lifting, but a lot of light has not been shown on it.”

“Amend” helps shed that light onto the 14th Amendment, as well as expose some of the lesser known facts of U.S. history that help give viewers a better understanding of the big picture. 

In episode one, it discusses President Lincoln’s fight to save the Union, reminding viewers that the now-cherished leader did not actually support the emancipation of slavery at the start of his term. It also explains that even following the Emancipation Proclamation, when some 4 million enslaved people were freed, they were not considered citizens until the enactment of the 14th Amendment — when the word “equal” made its first appearance in the constitution. 

A six-part limited series, the show also delves into the history of the women’s rights movement, provides a wrenching look at the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, details the path to marriage equality for the LGBTQ+ community and more.

“Let’s say you’re a high school freshman and you’re watching this,” series writer Sasha Stewert tells Indiewatch. “We wanted you to be able to follow us for the whole journey, giving people permission to not know who we were talking about. You may have heard of the 14th Amendment, but you might not know the whole history of it? That’s OK. You’re invited.”