As series commentator, Harvard scholar cites parallels to today
It was a time of unprecedented prosperity, cut down by a stock market collapse and then eclipsed by a long period of rampant joblessness. The national debate featured bitter divides over immigration, religion, and the proper role of government in the private lives of American citizens.
It sounds a lot like our own time, but we’re talking about the era of Prohibition. More precisely, it’s Ken Burns, the AV man for the nation’s ongoing civics lessons, who is talking about it.
“Prohibition,’’ the New Hampshire filmmaker’s latest work - his 25th production for PBS in 30 years - examines the collective impulse to curb the country’s appetite for alcohol and the unanticipated consequences of the passage of the 18th Amendment. Among those consequences: the rise of a national crime syndicate, the demonization of ethnic groups, the widespread corruption of law enforcement officers, and the creation of a huge new class of “scofflaws.’’
For Harvard constitutional scholar Noah Feldman - one of Burns’s recurring on-camera commentators for the series, which airs in three parts on WGBH beginning Oct. 2 - talking about Prohibition was a welcome opportunity to transcend his usual topic: “dry’’ law, as he puts it, pun intended.
“There were obvious parallels to the present day,’’ says Feldman, a Boston native whose work at the intersection of religion and law led to his role as an adviser on the formulation of a new Iraqi constitution. “There was a pretty deep divide in the American public about what was the right way to live.’’
The so-called “culture wars’’ over issues such as illegal immigrants, gay marriage, gun control, and abortion rights have largely defined the political discourse of recent years. But none of them have become quite so consuming as the fight over alcohol was in the 1920s and early 1930s. The 18th Amendment went into effect in January 1920; Prohibition was repealed by the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933.
With the Founding Fathers’ intentions a continuing source of intense debate, “Prohibition’’ revives fundamental questions about the Constitution, says Lynn Novick, Burns’s codirector.
“What is the Constitution in our society?’’ she asks. “What does it mean to us? Why would we want to amend it, and what does it mean to have a law that nobody follows? Those are the conceptual and philosophical issues the film raises.’’
Like Burns’s other series, “Prohibition’’ features observations from a core team of topical experts. Anecdotes about the drinkers, barkeepers, cops, and bootleggers of the Prohibition era are delivered by talking heads including the journalists Daniel Okrent (who authored a book about Prohibition called “Last Call’’) and Pete Hamill (whose memoir is called “A Drinking Life’’).
It was Novick who requested Feldman as a contributor, after coming across his writing about Prohibition in “Divided by God,’’ his 2005 book about the separation of church and state.
“Noah performs a service that no other person does in the film,’’ Burns says. While other commentators explain why Prohibition eventually proved ineffective and was repealed - Hamill, for one, makes the case that the forbidden is always alluring (“If you want them to brush their teeth, make it illegal’’) - Feldman provides the big-picture legal perspective.
“The Constitution is a rather dry operators’ manual, the way the Founders wanted it,’’ says Burns. “Outside the Preamble, it doesn’t have the poetry the Declaration of Independence does.’’ Feldman’s scholarship helps make the document accessible. “I see an important part of my job as talking about the Constitution for a general, non-specific audience,’’ Feldman says. “I love doing it.’’
“Noah Feldman’s free electrons colliding with Pete Hamill’s really make a film like this work,’’ says Burns. “The precision of Noah’s brain combined with the empathy of Pete Hamill’s brain make this something more than just a homework assignment on Prohibition.’’
It’s a perception that still makes Burns bristle - that his films, and documentaries in general, are like homework. In this case, he acknowledges, it helps that his subject matter is inherently “sexy and dangerous,’’ given the glamour of the flapper-era speakeasy culture and the lawlessness of the rum-runners, mobsters, and corrupt federal agents.
Stills and black-and-white film footage of such material set the stage for the introduction of some of Prohibition’s most significant figures, including US Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the “First Lady of Law’’; Wayne Wheeler, head lobbyist for the Anti-Saloon League; and the activist socialite Pauline Sabin, who made the cover of Time during her campaign for repeal.
For his part, Feldman sat in front of the filmmakers’ cameras for four or five hours in a room in Cambridge’s Charles Hotel. By the time they were finished, he was mentally exhausted.
“I needed a drink,’’ he says.