Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s upcoming documentary series for PBS, Prohibition, goes beyond the glamour of the flappers, Model Ts and gangsters of America in the 1920s to venture deep inside the country-wide ban of alcohol.
The three-part, five and a half-hour series, premiering on PBS on October 2, sees the director/producer partners delving into the reasons and politics behind Prohibition, the movement and the mandate, as well as how everyday Americans dealt with the outlawing of alcohol. The series was produced by Florentine Films and WETA Washington, DC. The international distribution arm of PBS will be selling the documentary series globally.
As Burns tells it, the idea for the project came six years ago, directly from old friend and frequent collaborator Daniel Okrent, who was in the process of writing his book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
“He said, ‘I know what your next film is,’ and I said, ‘I do too, I’ve got three in the works,’” Burns recalls. “He told me about his book and the more we talked about it, we decided to squeeze it in and do it.
“Voila, we benefited from his research and he benefited from ours,” he remarks. “It was kind of a parallel construction.”
Burns and Okrent shared research with each other, and over a time span of about three and a half years, Burns and collaborator Novick assembled a panel of advisors to help sift through the massive amount of material they’d amassed from the Library of Congress, public libraries, universities and museums. They also solicited people who lived during Prohibition via newspaper ads, to hear their stories of what life was like during that era, and to see their home movies and photos.
“We’ve all heard of the gangsters, Al Capone and the speakeasies. That’s the Cliff’s Notes version,” says Novick.
“This is a film about single-issue political campaigns that metastasize with horrible unintended consequences, the demonization of recent immigrants to the country and, as always, the demonization of African-Americans,” says Burns.
Novick says the series explores a range of topics, from the 19th century temperance movement which included the Anti-Saloon League, to the eventual repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933, as well as what everyday life was like in the Twenties, which “wasn’t showing up on the front pages of newspapers.”
As seen in the series, home movies from the period show people having parties and drinking away, and sometimes pretending to be drunk. The filmmakers also restored a 1921 documentary from legendary director Frank Capra that they found in the Library of Congress, which details the visit of an Italian naval ship crew to the port of San Francisco. They’re greeted by the Italian-American community with a big banquet, where everybody’s drinking wine.
“You could see that in the immigrant communities, Prohibition was not being obeyed, and that’s exactly who it was targeted at,” says Novick.
Burns says that compiling the amount of material for the five and a half-hour documentary was like stumbling into “a blizzard of facts you didn’t know,” including one curious piece of data – the country that had banned the sale and manufacture of alcohol was also the largest importer of cocktail shakers in the world.
That blizzard of information, coupled with the incredible content unearthed by Burns and Novick, is framed in the series with narration from actor Peter Coyote and a chorus of actors’ voices, including Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Oliver Platt, Samuel L. Jackson and Patricia Clarkson, who read diaries, journals, love letters and newspaper accounts from the period to give life to the past. Jazz great Wynton Marsalis provides the music.
The debut of the documentary is no doubt going to prompt comparisons to the present, with the Prohibitionists mirroring the modern-day Tea Party, but both Novick and Burns are quick to stress that they aren’t making political statements in the film.
“Good history always gives real agency to human existence and in the case of Prohibition, you’re stunned by how much it mirrors or prefigures our own time,” says Burns. “One doesn’t as a filmmaker put arrows and neon signs saying, ‘Look, it’s kind of like the Tea Party,’ or ‘This is kind of like the NRA.’ You don’t need to do that. If you treat your audience intelligently, they’ll respond intelligently and forge whatever connections they want to make.”
“Certainly you see echoes of the past,” says Novick of parallels with today’s political climate, most notably in the demonization of immigrants and an increasing intolerance of multiculturalism.
“You see an exploitation of fears and people’s anxieties today and I think you see an incredibly sophisticated manipulation of the political system back then,” she says.
While many viewers might also draw a link between the banning of alcohol in the 1920s to the fight to legalize marijuana today, Novick says there are deeper political issues at play. Because of the larger context, exploring human nature and what it means when governments impose rules and morality on a country, she believes that Prohibition has resonance for international territories.
As for the documentary’s launch, Burns sees the success of HBO’s 1920s drama Boardwalk Empire as an interesting coincidence.
“It’s so funny, because we began before that show was a gleam in anyone’s eye and now they’ve had their first season and are starting their second season and I’ve terrifically enjoyed it,” he says.
“However the gods are operating, we’ve once again coincided with the zeitgeist. I felt that with Baseball, I felt it with The Civil War, I felt it with Jazz. You work and labor for years in the obscurity of the editing room and you come out and realize people are actually interested in this subject.”