Larry Wilmore knew Netflix viewers were in for something remarkable when he watched Mahershala Ali speak the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
“Beautiful is the only word I can use,” he tells USA TODAY. Ali performs as Douglass during Netflix’s new six-part documentary series “Amend: The Fight for America” (now streaming), which aims to educate audiences about the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Wilmore and Will Smith serve as executive producers; Smith hosts.
Section 1 of the Amendment guarantees equal rights to all, and reads in part: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; 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.”
The 14th Amendment promised equality – but history shows true equality has yet to arrive for marginalized communities in the U.S. Achieving that equality can’t happen without education; Wilmore, who also appears in “Amend” as a commentator, says everyone could stand to learn more.
“It was an education for us while we were making it,” he says. The first half of the series focuses on Black history, from slavery and abolition through the modern fight for civil rights, and the second on women’s rights, the LGBTQ community and immigration.
Given the intersectionality of some of these identities – a term coined by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is interviewed – topics and themes inevitably overlap.
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“When we did the marriage equality episode, the first thing that struck me was the similarities between the civil rights for Black Americans and the struggle for LGBTQ rights,” Wilmore says.
“Amend” uses a multimedia mix of animation, drawings, historical footage, news clippings and photographs, along with interviews from historians, activists and professors. Ali and other actors like Laverne Cox, Diane Lane and Samuel L. Jackson read the words of historical figures.
While the series focuses on the 14th Amendment, Wilmore says we can – and should – look at every constitutional amendment for guidance.
“Whether it’s the First Amendment or the 14th, there’s meaning in them for us now.”
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While the series at times feels like a rehash of a high school history class, expect to get a clearer picture of important historical figures – and to learn about others for the first time.
Many may not know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln and Douglass didn’t always see eye to eye, or about figures from politician John Bingham, who was considered the “Father of the 14th Amendment,” to civil rights pioneer PauliMurray.
“There are so many nuances in the movements that get lost,” Wilmore says. “We’ll know about the movements themselves, but a lot of the tugs and pulls and pushes that happen within certain movements were really kind of eye-opening and interesting.”
Wilmore acts as comic relief amid the seriousness of the topics – something he’s used to doing. “Unfortunately, that’s kind of just how my brain works,” he says.
Of course, he wanted to make sure he struck the right tone. “You have to honor this material,” he says. “You don’t want to trivialize it.”
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The same concerns came up when figuring out how to use actors as part of the documentary. Should they be in costume, for example? Wilmore says they landed on simplicity and letting the words of historical figures speak for themselves.
For Wilmore, Ali personified that idea as Douglass: “It was the first time realizing that this could be something special.”