'Prohibition': Ken Burns gets drunk on the history of liquor law in America
Watching Prohibition, you can almost hear Ken Burns knock back a shot of Bushmills, slam the glass on the bar, and yell, “Yee haw — let’s make us some television!” There’s a hot-cheeked vigor to this three-night production on PBS, crammed with history, revelation, drama, and opinion. It’s both an eye-opener to the past, and a remarkable metaphor for the woozy present we’re reeling through today.
Working with his long-time co-producer and co-director, Lynn Novick, with an invaluable assist from Daniel Okrent, author of the authoritative book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Burns lays out the facts and figures of liquor consumption in 19th century America, and how that thirst gave rise to one of the most powerful and effective grass-roots political protests in our nation’s history.
Burns and Novick marshal their facts and place them on the silver tongue of Peter Coyote, Prohibition‘s chief narrator, along with a host of historians, eye-witnesses, and critical theorists — it’s the tried and true Ken Burns method, yet the method is never trite or tired here. The average American male over the age of 15, we’re told early on, gargled down about 88 bottles of whiskey a year. Note that factoid is confined to “male.” One result of this was a substantial amount of drunken abuse of women and children, a factor that helped inspire a wide array of responses, from the Temperance movement (“capital-T total abstinence”), to feminist movements for both liquor law reform and the vote, to the group calling themselves the Washingtonians, who took a pledge of abstinence… and were accused by the abstinent clergy as being “ungodly.”
The most fascinating element of Prohibition is the way liquor consumption inspired such fervor in so many, often contradictory, ways. As Burns has pointed out in interviews, Prohibition was supported by both the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP; the 18th Amendment is the only one in our Constitution that limits human freedom rather than expanding it; and the Volstead Act that followed it made anything containing one-half of 1% illegal — Burns favorite example is that thus, German chocolate cake was technically illegal.
From the rise of gangster culture to Alcoholics Anonymous, Prohibition seems not to miss anything; if you want to be able to tell your friends where the terms “bootlegger” and “scofflaws” came from, belly up to this TV bar. What Boardwalk Empire presents with elaborate costumes and at a slower pace, Prohibition presents with the energy of a flapper doing the Charleston during the Roaring ’20s — the period during which women, as chronicled by Burns and Novick, began to enjoy the freedom to drink and party nearly as freely as men.
It’s easy to see why Prohibition isn’t merely history, but metaphor: With its chronicle of a single wedge issue that united disparate groups that felt disenfranchised; its emphasis on loss of jobs and the blow to the economy that the 18th Amendment dealt the country; and the grass-roots efforts to seize control back to the people, the issues raised by the Prohibition era are also the stuff of arguments that rage across Fox News and MSNBC and news media today.
As the writer Pete Hamill puts it in one of his many fine talking-head appearances in Prohibition, it all boiled down to that most fundamental of all American feelings: “Who the hell are you to tell me how to live?”
Prohibition will air its second and third parts on Monday and Tuesday nights, and the entire series will be rerun during this week; check your local PBS listings.