Netflix's 'Amend' aims to be 'Schoolhouse Rock' for a new generation

The third season of Schoolhouse Rock!, titled “America Rock,” premiered in the fall of 1975 to coincide with the U.S. bicentennial. The influence of the animated educational program was so extensive that kids like me in the early 2000s were still watching it during class. Subjects ranged from the American Revolutionary War to multiplication tables to taxes.

A large part of the series’ staying power is attributed to music, specifically the catchy songs written to impart fundamental, sometimes complex bits of knowledge to children. The “America” season of Schoolhouse Rock! might be best known for its hit episode “I’m Just a Bill,” starring a rolled-up legislative document (voiced by Jack Sheldon) singing about how a bill becomes a law. This particular cartoon and its music have been sampled, parodied, and referenced dozens of times since its debut, in other animated shows like The Simpsons and on the actual Senate floor. It’s not a stretch to assume “I’m Just a Bill” and other episodes like “The Preamble” or “Fireworks,” about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, respectively, may even be many adults’ foundational knowledge about the legislative process.

Still, as with most educational media from past eras, there are certain key facts missing from Schoolhouse Rock! — notably any mention of race, segregation, or white supremacy. The new Netflix series Amend: The Fight for America, produced by Will Smith and Larry Wilmore, seeks to rectify such gaps not through song, but extended, sleek, bingeable verve. “I’m Just a Bill” constituted one episode of Schoolhouse Rock!, fewer than 5 minutes devoted to one subject. Amend, which focuses solely on the importance and liberties granted by the 14th Amendment, stretches across six hour-long episodes, each devoted to a different area of interest: citizenship, love, women’s rights, immigration, resistance to the amendment, and the Civil Rights Movement. Within these episodes are both broad historical touchstones and granular anecdotes, giving the series as a whole a sprawling reach.

In some ways, projects like Amend are to be expected following last year’s anti-racist reading trend, one of many international zeitgeists sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Two Oscar-nominated documentaries, Ava Duvernay’s 13th, about the abolition of slavery and the rise of the prison-industrial complex, and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, about the life and work of James Baldwin, continually feature on lists of “important” movies to watch, consciousness-raising for white and non-Black Americans. Amend seeks to do the same, but with a far glitzier veneer.

The 14th Amendment lays out the rights of all Americans, as well as the legal protections granted them by their citizenship. If you’re unfamiliar with the Constitution and the many implications of its language, if you have a fuzzy understanding of key figures like Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, if you don’t feel confident about the finer details of the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and LGBTQ+ movements, and if you prefer your facts to be recited by celebrities, this is the show for you. Mahershala Ali, Pedro Pascal, Randall Park, Samuel L. Jackson, Samira Wiley, Diane Lane, and Daveed Diggs are among the high-profile actors who stage dramatic readings from historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, delivering their letters, speeches, and diary entries with seriousness and consequence.

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This stylistic choice, one that I’m sure was greeted with enthusiasm from all parties involved, doesn’t become any less distracting, even after 6 hours. As more and more Hollywood stars walk into frame, their simple attire offset by large screens projecting historical documents and photographs, the overwhelming effect is “Oh, look who it is!” That’s because, despite its breadth and density, Amend seems to be a show designed for people with short attention spans. Each new piece of information, whether a shot of a talking head or a new, flashy graphic, is presented quickly and reiterated multiple times, with a driving, highly emphasized soundtrack playing throughout.

As the creators structure it, the story of the 14th Amendment is a narrative of strife, courage, perseverance, and hope, which tends to be the primary tenor for shows like these. In other words, no matter their criticism, the people involved are invested in the potential for goodness in the American project. But what Amend reveals is just how much of this history is shaped by repeated appeals and realizations of humanity. The heroes of these narratives are shown to be exceptional because they had no choice and that, for one reason or another, it was time for change. Amend is best when it trusts its historical experts to explicate longer-winded subjects and when it highlights the work of less popular activists like Bayard Rustin, who’s credited as the person who taught Martin Luther King Jr. about nonviolent organizing tactics, and Pauli Murray, a civil rights lawyer and the co-founder of the National Organization for Women. But this is a double-edged sword. Though collective struggles are discussed, much of the focus lies with individuals, who become the hinge upon which the struggle turns.

Oddly, this is a microcosm for the continued anti-racist reading impulse, where social and personal revelation might lead to wider, systemic change. But, in some ways, Amend thwarts that attempt. Much of the archival material used throughout the series goes uncited. Cartoons, footage from old TV shows, illustrations, and photographs are presented on screen, without any attribution, and it’s often these ancillary items that spark further curiosity. For instance, episode 2 features a scene from the 1968 documentary “The Heritage of Slavery” hosted by CBS reporter George Foster. In the memorable clip, Foster interviews Norwood Hastie, a descendant of slave owners. Even with captions on, the only information delineated is what’s heard through voiceover, namely Hastie’s name and his family’s history. By contrast, nearly every song that plays in Amend is studiously cited in its captions.

This series is about a divided country, but its sights are firmly established within the bounds of its inception, with no focus on how that land was stolen and divvied up. I was left hoping that the larger effect of Amend might be that audiences begin or continue a much more intricate, challenging engagement with the subjects brought up, one that further interrogates the American Dream and our citizens’ assumption of belonging. Amend is valuable for its attempt to drill down into a singular facet of legal precedent, one whose wide-ranging effects are still being debated. But its history is still a selective one.