When Ken Burns makes a documentary, you know exactly what you are going to get from a certain point of view. Old photos, panned across with a voice over to turn the static into something resembling an actual film. Historians, writers, and other experts introduced via a text blurb on the bottom, cut and edited so as to narrate the film organically. A sprinkling of real people retelling colorful anecdotes, passed down from childhood in the case of old enough subject matter. The witnesses are presented side by side with the academic experts, every voice mixing together into a gestalt narration.
It’s a very particular style that has been so successful that the Ken Burns method of documentary has simply become what we think of as the traditional way of making a documentary. Just about everything in the documentary form scattered across History, Discovery and other cable nonfiction is shot in the same simple but effective style. It’s completely at odds with a younger generation of documentarian who stands in front of the camera, Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore for instance. An avid reader of history, Ken Burns’ films feel like flipping through an old dusty history book in the back of a used book store, while a couple of old guys chime in with their opinions about the book’s subject. Prohibition is Burns’ latest project, a five and a half hour documentary broken up into three chapters.
There are two traps that threaten to trip up any documentary about Prohibition: the gangsters and mapping it too neatly onto modern drug laws. These aren’t traps because they’re not part of the story and aren’t fascinating in their own right, but because they aren’t the entire story in and of themselves though they easily become just that if allowed to dominate the story of the period. And they are easy to fall into exactly because they are so attractive. Capone, endless mob violence, the swagger and appeal of the twentieth century’s version of pirates, these themes have been rehashed in a hundred documentaries and fictions. And the relationship to modern drug laws is too easy of a comparison. It’s already in the heads of everyone watching, and if it isn’t, they’re going to shut it off if it’s banged over their head.
Burns avoids both of these traps deftly. The gangsters are a part of the story, but only a part. And in particular, their story is told in order to tease out how normal Americans were impacted by their existence. The comparison to modern drug laws is kept in the background, allowed to be implicit. And while the hypocrisy of Prohibition laws is made abundantly clear, with dramatic testimony of former bootleggers who dropped off cases at Congress, of the fact that a weak beer could be made by mixing two legal ingredients in every pharmacy of the time, these hypocrisies are used to illustrate the complexities of American society rather than as a blunt indictment of substance prohibition.
The main thrust of the story being told is in humanizing the political process. It traces at length not only that attempts at Prohibition can be traced back almost a century, but the motivation for it. Not content to leave Prohibitionists as one-dimensional, the documentary devotes a good deal of time to demonstrating why they were fighting to ban alcohol. While their crude propaganda is displayed for good measure (one sip of alcohol turns you irrevocably into a brute, literally poisoning the drinker for life), so is an illustration of the real evils greased by alcohol. Endless districts full of nothing but saloons, brothels, and drug dens. A society in which working men handed their paychecks to the bar owner and savagely abused their families. These were not petty moralists seeking to puritanize an entire country to suit their vision of society. They were a progressive movement trying to fix very real problems. That their solution was so laughable in retrospect is not a joke, but a fascinating tragedy.
What Burns really gets right in his story, is the very simple insight that everyone on all sides thought they were doing the right thing. Underneath, it’s a story of American democracy. The power holders were not Prohibitionists, this was not something that people were led to. A complex array of people supported it for all manner of reasons. And in turn, the overthrow of Prohibition was accomplished by a similar coalition. Democracy is a messy affair, and in the short term it sometimes does things that are foolish in hindsight, but it’s also self-correcting. It’s a story of how in the long run, people do get things right.
Prohibition debuted last week on PBS over a three night period, and can still be watched clip by clip on PBS’ website, though they’ve taken down the full episodes for the moment.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.