In the simplest terms, Prohibition — the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” — became law under the auspices of lobbyists who believed that a corrupt society could be bettered with the elimination of alcohol. Of course, nothing about Prohibition is simple.
“We not only didn’t fix everything about society, we made half the nation lawbreakers, and we created organized crime and a host of other horrific unintended consequences,” says Ken Burns, who, along with filmmaking partner Lynn Novick, examines the law and the 1920s era so defined by the ruling in the PBS documentary, “Prohibition.”
In typical Burnsian fashion, the three-part, five-and-a-half-hour series utilizes well-documented history (the rise of Al Capone) and lesser-known stories (23-year-old Lois Long — pen name Lipstick — covering the speakeasy lifestyle for the New Yorker) to shed light on an important moment in American history. But it’s a period of political and cultural upheaval that reverberates today.
“If I told you that I had been working with Lynn for several years on a film about single-issue political campaigns, if the story was about the demonization of recent immigrants to the United States, if I told you we’d been working on a film that involved smear campaigns during presidential elections or unfunded congressional mandates or, more importantly, a whole group of people who felt they’d lost control of their country and wanted to take it back, you would insist that we had abandoned our historical interests and were covering the contemporary political scene,” Burns says. “But, of course, we are only dealing with a handful of the topics that are engaged throughout our series on Prohibition.”
The ‘Boardwalk Empire’ factor
There’s another series about Prohibition on the air right now — HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” — and Ken Burns admits that he’s a fan.
“They’ve done their homework,” he says of the drama set in 1920s Atlantic City. “It’s very complex and nuanced, and they’ve found not just the primary characters, but the secondary and tertiary ones.”
Burns refers to “Boardwalk Empire” as a hit in the vein of “The Sopranos.” “They’re not that dissimilar, you know,” he says. “Americans always love to watch people who get to kill people that piss them off and women who take their clothes off at the drop of a hat.”