I share my birthday with a rather prophetic event in American history.
On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. With Utah’s ratification vote, the failed social experiment known as Prohibition was killed, and Americans could once again belly up to the bar free of prosecution.
Yet the effects of that 13 year era still linger, both in our national consciousness and our collective imagination. Film and television have done much to pump up the mystique.
Yesterday, two programs dealt with Prohibition—one a multi-layered morality play, the other a social-science documentary. You can guess which is which by the networks they were on: few fact-based documentaries of glacial speed exist on Home Box Office. On the other hand, PBS rarely has a massive volume of exposed breasts and gunplay.
While Boardwalk Empire and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition may seem altogether different, in fact they approach the Noble Experiment in two important directions—and one cannot exist without the other.
The Ken Burns documentary, a format familiar to many, lays out the larger issues of the era and the main characters involved in a familiar maudlin motif. In the first episode, alcohol takes its place as a prominent American beverage since the colonial period—only reaching crisis mode as distilled spirits become the drink of choice in saloons during the mid 19th century. The negative effects of drinking (the violence, indolence, illness, etc.) touched women and children the worst, especially at a time when their voice was largely silenced.
The groups formed to combat the spread of “Demon rum”—the Prohibition Party, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League—grew out of a larger social reform movement for abolition, workplace reform, and especially womens’ suffrage. It further split Americans along regional, class and ethnic lines: Protestants against Catholics, Episcopalians and German Lutherans, Native-born against immigrants, rural versus urban.
Yet where the documentary works to establish the greater framework for the era, it is difficult for stills and voiceovers to create an ethos or soul.
Boardwalk Empire is now in its second season on HBO. A dramatic series based loosely on real events and characters in Atlantic City in the 1920s, the program follows county treasurer and political boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (based on real-life boss “Nucky” Johnson) as he navigates his empire of graft and corruption—an empire grown richer thanks to Prohibition. Along the way, mobsters, mistresses, lackeys, and rival bosses struggle in the wake of Nucky’s machinations.
It is these struggles that are an important piece of the Prohibition puzzle—a piece, so far, absent from the PBS documentary.
Even in future episodes, as the rise and collapse of Prohibition is laid out in detail, Prohibition is no catch-all synopsis of the entirety of the dry days. The voiceovers, narration, grainy stills and grainier silent films of the era give much authenticity—much, but not all.
There is something in scripted drama that truly establishes an ethos, even if that ethos is almost a century in the past. Prohibition was more than just laws, agents, mobsters and speakeasies. At its heart, it was about ordinary Americans forced to make choices in a time of tremendous upheaval—a conflict well-founded in the HBO series.
Boardwalk Empire shows, in the daily conflicts of people high and low, the tough choices Americans were forced to make. Politicians like Nucky Thompson made choices that compromised morality, legality and even personal loyalty. Law enforcement officers, like sheriff Elias Thompson and Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, made choices that conflicted their sense of duty with their need for material security. Ordinary citizens, people who were once law-abiding, had to make the difficult (or often not so difficult) choice to break the law in order get even a little bit of comfort.
Like any era in history, Prohibition cannot be encapsulated in one source. Even a library of material could not encompass the necessary scholarship that defines a time in the past. In this case, however, a good basic grasp of the period requires two hands instead of one.
Documentaries provide solid material, underlying conflicts, primary sources—basically the big picture. Yet do not count out historical fiction entirely, especially if it’s done well.
Using both, you may get a more complete picture than you realize.
Enjoy them both…the next round’s on me.