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'Prohibition' – so much more than gangsters and flappers

This Sunday (8 to 10 p.m. EDT) Ken Burns turns his prodigious research efforts and illuminating camerawork loose on America's failed attempt to sober up.

By Staff Writer / September 28, 2011

Americans fought hard to pass the 18th Amendment in 1920, which brought in prohibition. But they repealed the controversial amendment just 13 years later.

Courtesy of John Binder Collection

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Nearly a century ago Americans decided to make drinking alcohol illegal – and then promptly and widely ignored their own new law.

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Prohibition turned liquor distribution into a lucrative business for criminal gangs. Yet it was spawned, at least in part, by an altruistic American notion that society could be improved to form “a more perfect union.”

This Sunday (8 to 10 p.m. EDT) America’s preeminent documentary historian, Ken Burns, begins a 5-1/2-hour series that turns his prodigious research efforts and illuminating camerawork on “Prohibition.”

That era, from the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 to its repeal 13 years later, is a subject that means so much more to America than just gangsters, flappers, and jazz, he says.

“We’ve got all of that. But it’s so much more complicated,” Mr. Burns says in a phone interview. “It’s kind of an inside look at the original culture war, with all of these folks trying to assert control over other folks.”

In part, it’s the story of single-issue political campaign that resulted in unintended consequences, he says. It all may sound strangely familiar.

“It’s got every single one of today’s [issues],” he says, “demonization of recent immigrants, smear campaigns during presidential elections – everything that we think is so new to us is, in fact, a recapitulation of the original culture war.”

“Prohibition” takes viewers from early 19th century efforts at “temperance” to 1920, when prohibition was enacted as a reaction to massive changes in American society, to 1933, when it is repudiated and repealed. Just how America changes over this period is reflected in the titles of the three installments: “A Nation of Drunkards,” “A Nation of Scofflaws,” “A Nation of Hypocrites.”

The series, narrated by Peter Coyote, features music by jazz great Wynton Marsalis, as well as the voices of actors Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, Paul Giamatti, Oliver Platt, John Lithgow, Samuel L. Jackson, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Waterston, and others.

Below is more of what Burns had to say, edited and condensed.

How did the project come about?
I bumped into Dan Okrent on the Brooklyn Bridge. You know, [the bridge] was the subject of my first film. I was pushing, then, a newborn baby, my little gal, over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I bumped into Dan and he said, “I know what your next film is going to be....”

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