Fast Chat: Ken Burns discusses PBS documentary 'Prohibition'

Filmmaker Ken Burns discusses his baseball documentary, "The

Filmmaker Ken Burns discusses his baseball documentary, "The Tenth Inning," during an interview in Boston. (Credit: AP (2010))

The James Boswell of America, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has made must-see TV out of the history of everything from baseball to the Brooklyn Bridge. His 1990 miniseries "The Civil War" became a particular audience favorite.

Born in Brooklyn -- one of the few topics on which he hasn't done a documentary -- Burns, 58, grew up in Saint-Véran, France; Newark, Del.; and Ann Arbor, Mich., where his cultural anthropologist father taught. He attended Hampshire College, in Massachusetts and, with two fellow graduates, founded Walpole, N.H.-based Florentine Films, the production company for the more than two dozen documentaries he's completed or has in production.

Burns spoke with Newsday contributor Frank Lovece about the five-hour documentary "Prohibition," airing Sunday through Tuesday on PBS.

The 18th Amendment, prohibition of alcohol, is regarded as a failure, leading to major organized crime and other ills and prompting our nation's only repeal of a Constitutional amendment. Is this a reason we don't prohibit, say, cigarettes today?

That may be in the end, one of the best benefits of , that we're very leery of people telling us we can solve all of problems with a single magic bullet. The biggest unintended consequence of Prohibition was the creation of organized crime. But that also distracts us from the fact that it wasn't just Al Capone but ordinary people who were making booze illegally and selling it to their neighbors and defying a law. That's the thing the mythology distracts us from, and while you have to tell the fascinating and interesting and dimensional story of gangsters, you have to remember there's a kind of bottom-up as well as top-down story in Prohibition.

 

Well, "bottoms up!" as they say! We do, though, today, still have prohibition -- small "p" -- of drugs like cocaine and heroin.

It's absolutely true. But those are not things that all people have been using since the beginning of time, and it makes the exact equivalency hard to forge. Human beings have been drinking alcohol for as long as there have been human beings. But one can easily see, as one contemplates, say, marijuana -- our largest cash crop -- what regulation and taxation might mean to cash-starved states and countries, and the assumption that might also decrease whatever violence occurs in its now-illicit distribution.

 

Marijuana, because of its medicinal benefits, does have some advocacy behind it. No one's really advocating the non-prohibition of heroin. What's the difference between that prohibition and alcohol's prohibition?

You have a kind of moral-gradation scale with cocaine and heroin, which makes it harder to address the real roots of the problem, because so much of the violence extends from the organized crime related to drugs. This is why you can see drugs as different from alcohol in that there are subcultural manifestations. Their use in varying degrees has always been in a minority part of the population -- sometimes so inconsequentially [in the past] as to not need to be regulated, other times fearfully engaging the billions of dollars of resources that we throw to drug interdiction in this country each year alone.

 

You've got "Dust Bowl" coming out next year, "The Central Park Five" in 2013 . . .

If not sooner. We might release that in 2012 as well.

 

"The Roosevelts" in 2014 . . .

Yeah, that's a major seven-part, 14-hour series.

 

And "Jackie Robinson" in 2015.

That's correct. And [co-producer] Lynn Novick and I are now well into production on a major series on the history of Vietnam that will come out in 2016. And Dayton Duncan and I are researching a major series on country music that will come out in 2018. And then Lynn and I at some point will be starting a biography of Ernest Hemingway.

 

So many projects at once. Running a pretty big media company, do you have any down time?

That cracks me up! We have just a handful of people. It's totally grant-funded, we don't take any commercial clients, everything requires an enormous round of philanthropic fundraising. Down in the center of town, we have a small editing house where we make a lot of the films, and in my garage is where the administration goes on. I've got perfectly nice offices -- they're just back of the house in our garage!

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