AVC: So what about Prohibition can help us answer the question of who we are?
KB: Prohibition is about single-issue campaigns with horrible consequences, the demonization of African Americans and recent immigrants, Presidential smear campaigns. These are only a handful of things that Prohibition engages, but you’ll watch and think, “My goodness, these are things we’re grappling with today.” Maybe we’re having a hard time talking about them today, but we come to realize that there is nothing new under the sun. What’s really interesting is to watch contemporary society, which thinks it’s so youthful, so sexual, so cool, and so hip, yet our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were doing the same things. We think of them as old, but they were taking drugs, having premarital sex, going to illegal speakeasies. Doesn’t that make my grandmother less stodgy? And doesn’t that require me to ask questions of her life and my own?
This isn’t homework. We’re trying to make art, but once documentary films are done, they’re not mine, they’re yours. You can make of it what you will. It will provide some understanding of today or it won’t. Some people will see it and say, “Let’s go out to the new bar that’s modeled on a speakeasy and have that old cocktail they used to make in the 1920s.” Others will see that we lack a civil dialogue. Prohibition reminds us of the dangers of taking things to the extreme, but there’s no right answer of what to take from it.
AVC:When I was in high school, history wasn’t required every year. We have politicians and public figures adjusting history to their needs. What are some ways we can improve our historical knowledge in this country?
KB: The first thing is to teach it, which we don’t do. The second is to realize that history includes the word “story,” and we can tell stories and not depend on dates and acts. We hope we’re able to get into an emotional archaeology, and when we do that, you’re riveted. When you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you are, or, more importantly, where you’re going. We’re seeing the tragic consequences of feeling like we could shortcut history in favor of more important subjects, but I can’t imagine anything being more important than the great pageant of everything that has brought us to this moment. We see politicians manipulating history or outright getting it wrong. It’s hypocritical to see politicians railing against recent immigrants when they couldn’t pass the test that immigrants are given. This is an interesting thing and a constant reminder that the U.S. is in perpetual tension between the prurient and Puritan. Prohibition came down to the divide between Sunday morning righteousness and Saturday night fun.