Ken Burns’ documentaries always leave you feeling that, though you imagined you knew a thing or two about a historical event — the Civil War or World War II, the evolution of baseball or jazz — you’d actually been familiar with only a tiny fraction of the story. Last year when Burns told me he was working on “Prohibition,” his latest film with co-director Lynn Novick, I thought, “Oh sure: Carrie Nation, speakeasies, Al Capone — I know all about that.”
“This is not a documentary about gangsters and flappers,” Burns told me recently when he and Novick were in Chicago for a preview screening of the movie. “Prohibition has always been treated superficially even though, when you look at it closely, it wasn’t just a 13-year hiccup — it really was America’s first culture war.”
The three-part, six-hour series, which premieres on PBS Oct. 2, is a sweeping view of the maturation of a young America yearning to forge a collective utopian identity of sober citizens through individual activism and massive grassroots organizing. Ultimately, the effort — nearly two decades of fighting for and against the constitutional tinkering that created a nation of inebriated lawbreakers — bowed to the intractability of the nation’s complex social problems, not to mention the individualistic spirit of those who were unashamed to take solace with an occasional drink.
The film takes viewers on an American odyssey that spans nearly everything from the origins of alcohol production and consumption to the rise of crooked politicians. Most importantly, the film illuminates for viewers how the aspirations, struggles and missteps of our forefathers and mothers are intimately familiar to our own present-day concerns. By looking at what happened before and after the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act went into effect to provide a large-scale government fix for convoluted social problems associated with alcoholism, we can consider the issues of our day.
Some 2011 equivalents might be the efforts to combat obesity, drug abuse or smoking. Prohibition, we learn, was intimately intertwined with people’s fear of cultural change. The Germans and Irish were seen as beer-swilling threats to America’s ideals — they drank too much, drank the “wrong” kind of liquor, and didn’t have as much self-control as “real” Americans. African-Americans were widely feared both sober and drunk and, in combination with voting rights, considered a menace. Most people don’t remember that the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in support of Prohibition and its strict enforcement.
Alternately, though almost everyone has heard about Carrie Nation and her beer-barrel-busting hatchet, who knew she was a very marginal figure in a movement that was instigated by women tired of the ills alcohol brought to their families? “We really almost didn’t include her, she was such a fringe character,” Novick told me. Nation’s legacy has long overshadowed the women who popularized temperance and who, upon seeing the unintended consequences of the ban, eventually led the successful movement for repeal, gaining their voting rights along the way.
Unintended consequences are really what “Prohibition” is all about. Though there was widespread support for the amendment, no one predicted what would happen once alcohol was outlawed. In fact, few advocates imagined they’d lose theirlegal access to beer and wine. And no one seemed to have thought through how they were going to deal with millions of newly criminal drinkers and the unfunded federal and state mandates to prosecute each one.
As usual, Burns and Novick take the lofty idea of “history” and weave together the million details of real people’s day-to-day lives into gripping drama that feels fresh and deeply relevant to our lives now.
This is chronicle at its very best: allowing us to look back so we can more clearly look forward.