Netflix's We The People uses animation to teach kids important civics lessons

With executive producers Barack and Michelle Obama, screenwriter Chris Nee has brought together a diverse team of animators to create a kids TV show that makes topics such as voting, taxes, and free speech accessible.

5 July 2021

To coincide with Independence Day, Netflix has released a new series titled We The People that “combines the power of music and animation to educate a new generation of young Americans about the power of the people”. The series, which was created by screenwriter and producer Chris Nee with the help of executive producers Barack and Michelle Obama and Kenya Barris, is composed of ten animated music videos that each focus on a different civic lesson, from voting to immigration. The videos are set to original songs by renowned artists such as H.E.R., Janelle Monae, Brandi Carlile, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Adam Lambert, Cordae, Bebe Rexha, Kyle, Andra Day, and poet Amanda Gorman; and animated by studios Buck and Titmouse, with episode directors Peter Ramsey, Trisha Gum, Victoria Vincent, Benjy Brooke, Mabel Ye, Tim Rauch, Jorge R. Gutierrez, Daron Nefcy, Everett Downing and Kendra Ryan. Chris Nee says she created the show after asking herself the question “how do you get kids to actually click on something about civics in this day and age?”

“As the dialogue continues around voting rights and accessibility in the U.S., we need a common language to talk about civics for kids,” she says. “But we needed to make it cool. A million people have wanted to capture the ethos of Schoolhouse Rock and it just felt like the right combination and the right time.” For We The People, Chris has taken the educational aspect of the popular 70s musical TV series Schoolhouse Rock – which taught kids about subjects such as grammar, science, economics, history, and mathematics – and brought it into the modern day, enticing Gen Z viewers with catchy soundtracks and contemporary animation styles. The animation itself changes with each episode, giving a mix of different animators the chance to put their own unique spin on the topic at hand.

Speaking on the recruiting of the animation team, Chris says: “In terms of animation, we wanted ten different animation styles, with ten different animators who were as diverse as possible and specifically represented We the People.” But instead of just going for the biggest names possible, Chris chose to bring on board a range of established and emerging artists: “We made the choice not only to ask the heaviest of hitters in our business — Peter Ramsey, Jorge R. Gutierrez, and Trisha Gum — but also hold several of the slots for up-and-comers. We wanted every choice to hold up the values of the work that we were putting on screen. And I think it worked out beautifully.” The varying styles allow for renewed focus with each episode, giving viewers – especially younger ones – a reason to carry on watching and a way in which to navigate the many different subjects being discussed in the songs.

The diversity of the animation also means that the aesthetic moves from raw and retro to soft and painterly and then to bright and cartoonish. In episode one, for example, which looks at the difference between state and federal power and the importance of uniting the two, the serious subject is offset with an upbeat track by rapper Kyle and an animation style that is reminiscent of hit kids TV shows such as The Amazing World of Gumball. By creating a visual bridge between the everyday cartoons watched by kids nationwide and the complex and often opaque world of civics, We The People manages to reach younger generations in a comfortable and familiar context in which dense topics feel accessible. Reflecting on the future of the show, Chris says: “I hope we are giving a tool to educators to make this a cool topic. And I hope that these songs are going to stick in the heads of kids who are actually just going to listen to them because they’re cool!”

GalleryNetflix: We The People stills (copyright © Netflix, 2021)

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Netflix: We The People still (copyright © Netflix, 2021)

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About the Author

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.

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