In the saga of rights that have been assured by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, marriage equality plays a starring role.
It's among the rights explored in Amend: The Fight for America,a six-episode Netflix series about the amendment that granted citizenship and equal protection of the laws to all people born or naturalized in the United States. It was adopted in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, as part of the effort to ensure that Black Americans, including those who had until recently been enslaved, would have all the same rights as whites.
Unfortunately, many states and localities soon found ways to block those rights, and the struggle for equality continued -- and not for African-Americans alone. Women of any color essentially had no rights, including the right to vote. Many states would not let interracial couples marry. And the unequal treatment of LGBTQ+ Americans received little attention until the late 20th century.
The Fourteenth Amendment has been crucial to all those fights for equality, particularly in the courts, as laid out in both enlightening and entertaining fashion in the series, hosted by Will Smith, who executive-produced it along with Larry Wilmore. Amend features a stellar cast of actors giving voice to historical figures, plus insights from legal experts, activists, and ordinary people who sought justice.
One of those ordinary people is Jim Obergefell, whose name will always be associated with marriage equality. The 2015 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry throughout the U.S. bore his name, although it involved several couples from four states. The love story and marriage of Obergefell and John Arthur frames episode 5 of the series, telling poignantly of how they married when Arthur was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and how Obergefell fought to be named as the surviving spouse on Arthur's death certificate, as their home state of Ohio did not recognize same-sex marriages at the time.
Other episodes of Amend deal with the amendment's origins, the Black civil rights movement, women's rights, and immigrants' rights. Wilmore, who recently sat with The Advocate for a video interview about the effort to make the series as comprehensive and inclusive as possible, says there was never any doubt that it would cover marriage equality.
"The marriage equality episode was the star episode from the beginning," Wilmore says. Jim Obergefell's personal story and the general story of marriage equality were so compelling that they even needed very little editing, he says.
"When your put the flesh and blood on something and people are able to just view the humanness of the situation ... it's so powerful when you make something simple like that," he says.
Wilmore, known for his stint as the "senior Black correspondent" on The Daily Show, as host of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, and as the creator of The Bernie Mac Show and Grown-ish, is a longtime ally of LGBTQ+ people. But he says he doesn't call himself an ally; he's just someone who recognizes everyone's "humanness."
One of his first encounters with a gay person, he says, was as a young actor in the early 1980s. The producer of a play he was in was a man who talked openly about his husband, even though legal marriage wasn't available to same-sex couples then -- and their relationships were even criminalized in many states. As he got to know the producer and his husband, their relationship "never seemed like a big deal to me ... like a foreign thing; it always seemed natural," Wilmore recalls, adding, "I was very lucky at a young age to experience the humanness of it."
Wilmore notes that the series emphasizes the intersectionality of various identities, including identities for which people have been marginalized. "That's what's powerful about doing this documentary, is how the Fourteenth Amendment has been able to fight the fight for all these issues," he says. Many of the historical figures involved in these fights are examples of intersectionality, he says, such as Bayard Rustin, the Black gay man who was one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s chief organizers.
As for what he'd like viewers to take away from Amend, Wilmore says, "We hope people get an appreciation for how things have been fought for in the past, how they are being fought for now, and how this is for our future ... and not to see it as a history lesson but as a flesh-and-blood lesson and to see that actual people were involved here."
Among the actors involved in the series are Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley, Lena Waithe, Mahershala Ali, Diane Lane, Bobby Cannavale, Courtney B. Vance, Samuel L. Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Sterling K. Brown, Randall Park, Dermot Mulroney, and Joshua Jackson. The legal and activist talent on display includes Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; David Blight, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian; Brittany Packnett Cunningham, former executive director for Teach for America in St. Louis; Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general nominee; Kimberle Crenshaw, professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Columbia University; Khalil Muhammad, professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard University; Garrett Epps, professor of law at the University of Baltimore; and many more.
All six episodes of Amend drop Wednesday on Netflix. Watch an exclusive clip below.