Larry Wilmore talks ‘Amend: The Fight for America,’ importance of Black history

The executive producer says the Netflix docuseries is meant to show the lesser known parts of history

Larry Wilmore is adding historian to his resume with the release of his newest project, Amend: The Fight for America.

The Netflix docuseries, executive produced by Wilmore and Will Smith, combines the comedian’s love of history (he refers to himself as a “history nerd”) and entertainment to tell the beautiful, complicated story of the 14th Amendment. While the series delves into slavery, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, Amend also focuses on women rights, marriage equality and immigration–a decision Wilmore says was purposeful.

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“When I first talked to Will Smith about this, who called me in to help him with the creative, this really wasn’t made [just] for Black Americans,” the talk show host told theGrio. “This was made for everybody. It was for everybody to know these stories and to put flesh and blood in it. I think for some people, it’s going to affect us in different ways for sure, but the idea was to tell a story about America. Who’s America for and what does it mean to be an American? And to show how the 14th Amendment is at the center of that question.”

While many traditional documentaries rely on historical footage, Amend incorporates humor, animation and dramatic readings from some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Several A-list actors appear as historical figures, including Mahershala Ali as Frederick Douglass, Samira Wiley as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sterling K. Brown as Malcolm X and Laverne Cox as author James Baldwin.

“In my talks with Will about how can we do this so it’s not just a straightforward documentary. People may be falling asleep by the second episode if it’s just telling a chronology,” Wilmore explained. “There could be a performative aspect to it, you can add some humor, and maybe music, all of those started with just talking about it and having conversations.”

“The performative part was very challenging, because you can’t just have actors and wigs and costumes. Because now I’ll go, ‘Whoa, I’m at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre? Is Madea coming out? What’s going on here?’ And so, realizing that the words that people actually spoke are very powerful, and these actors that we’re using, they have a lot of power by doing very little. You put a lens on Mahershala saying the words of Frederick Douglass, that’s very powerful. You don’t need anything else, and realizing that was revelation. It took us a while to get to that point, but finding that was so exciting.”

Larry Wilmore attends the 2019 Writers Guild Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Feb. 17, 2019. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

Amend was also shaped by Wilmore’s experience in school. The producer shared that there were many Black history events and topics that he never learned in the classroom that he purposed to include in the series.

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“Because that happened, we wanted to make sure that it came across that way too–that people were hearing it in the right way,” he said. “Like, for instance, I didn’t know [Abraham] Lincoln wanted to ship us [Black Americans] off to Central America. I was like, ‘I thought you was our boy what happened?’ And knowing that, it’s like, ‘Okay, well, people need to hear this because that happened.’ That the conversation [between] Douglass [and Lincoln] was very important, but there’s a context to that conversation.”

“Lincoln was a fantastic president, was a great man, but he was a human being too. He was also a contemporary man of his time, lest we forget that. We’re just presenting the man as he was, you know. There’s so many interesting stories like that, that were kind of eye-opening and that type of thing. As a kind of history nerd, I love hearing that kind of stuff.”

Amend: The Fight for America will be available to stream on Netflix on Feb. 17. Check out Wilmore’s full interview with theGrio above.

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