Ever since it appeared on my Netflix screen in 2017, I've been urging everyone I know to watch 13TH, a powerful and helpful explainer for one of the big messes this country has on its hands. Directed by Ava DuVernay, 13TH is a lively and well-sourced documentary on the present-day criminal justice industrial complex and how it got here.
The film persuasively argues that America’s prison system, the world’s biggest, was a direct by-product of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although that post-Civil War amendment abolished slavery, there was a huge exception in it stating that a person’s civil rights could be denied “as a punishment for crime.” Faster than you could say Jim Crow, a ridiculous number of recently-freed slaves were back in bondage, and the pattern continues to this day.
The 13th Amendment was the first of the so-called “Reconstruction amendments” passed by Congress to ensure that the conditions that made the Civil War possible never happened again. If anything, the next one that passed — after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination — the 14th, is even more contentious and relevant than the 13th. So I was pleased to see that Netflix has followed up 13TH with Amend: The Fight for America, devoted to the history and legacy of the 14th Amendment.
Because this is Netflix in 2021, Amend is a six-part docuseries rather than a single film, and as such, a simple thumbs up or down does not suffice. As as critic I would advise viewers short on time to watch only the first and last episodes. Then, if you like what you see, you can go back and watch parts two through five. If you’re a teacher, though, you may just want to carve out a week or more for your kids to watch and discuss all six hours. It's that good. (Amend is rated TV-MA, but other than some incidental cursing and descriptions of white supremacist violence, there’s nothing objectionable in it.)
Unlike 13TH, Amend has a host, and not just any host but Will Smith. His job is not only to narrate but by the sheer force of his personality to lighten up the rather intense subject matter, which involves Ku Klux Klan rallies, race riots, lynchings, and other triggering moments in history. Amend is an often rapid-fire pastiche of old photos, current and archival news footage (say this for white nationalism, it has rarely been camera-shy), talking heads featuring top historians like Eric Foner and David Blight, all scored to a funky beat.
If there is a target audience for Amend, it's probably the people who found themselves marching in memory of George Floyd all across America last summer. People who never expected to be standing in solidarity with the Black Lives movement, or were jarred out of their indifference by what happened in Washington on January 6, and if their history has come mainly from TV and popular books, they barely know that Reconstruction even happened.
“Why haven’t we learned the story of the fourteenth amendment?” Will Smith asks. “Because there are a lot of people out there who fought very hard to make sure you’d never know.” (Bad schooling may be just as responsible, although the two aren't mutually exclusive.)
I applaud Amend’s decision to frame the first episode around the life and oratory of Frederick Douglass. One of the 19th century’s greatest figures, Douglass liberated himself from slavery and then became the abolition cause’s most forceful and uncompromising spokesman. He was also eyewitness to one of the stranger moments in history, a meeting at the White House where President Lincoln tried to convince Douglass and other Black abolitionists to move to a new colony for ex-slaves somewhere in Central America. No, said Douglass, this land is our land and we intend to stay here and gain full citizenship.
Douglass argued relentlessly for a constitutional amendment that would ensure full rights for all citizens — the 14th Amendment. And since its ratification in 1868 it has arguably been the most litigated amendment, cited in everything from Brown v. Board to Roe v. Wade and even Bush v. Gore. If you're a Ruth Bader Ginsburg fan, Amend is definitely your candy.
The use of celebrities reciting the words of Douglass and other notables is a nice touch — not too solemn, not too light. You’ll see more of Pedro Pascal’s face here (delivering the Gettysburg Address) than you will on The Mandalorian. Mahershala Ali, Diane Lane, Samuel L. Jackson, and Yara Shahidi are some of the other famous readers appearing on Amend.
I’ve seen a lot of grim takes on American failure, from Michael Moore’s ouevre on the left, to Newt Gingrich's dreck on the right, and they tend to leave me feeling uneasy and helpless. Amend’s co-producers, Smith and Larry Wilmore, have avoided this trap. Wilmore pops in with a rant from time to time, much in the same tone as his show on Peacock — C'mon, white people, you can do so much better. Smith is the embodiment of the successful Black man in America. He’s bullish on the American promise as stated in its keystone documents, but angry that we've fallen short of those ideals for two and a half centuries.
And to that end, Amend’s more optimistic presentation makes it a superior choice for the classroom than the much-touted 1619 Project of the New York Times, which the newspaper has been trying to get into school curricula. It’s not that 1619, as some grandstanding right-wing legislators claim, is a "racially divisive and revisionist account of history." The history was already racially divided; all the revisionism does is point this out. But tone matters, and the dour tone of the 1619 Project will leave middle-schoolers wondering why anyone bothers pledging allegiance to the United States and its founding documents — which I would contend, post-January 6, is not a good look.
If 1619 is like reading an autopsy report, Amend is more like a deep-dive medical show, say Diagnosis. The patient is doing OK, better than one might expect all things considered, but will require some strong medicine to get rid of that nagging virus of authoritarianism that flares up from time to time.
Amend: The Fight for America drops on Netflix February 17th.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.