Movie Review: Prohibition (2011)


Title: Prohibition
Release Date: 2 October 2011
Director: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Production Co: Florentine Films
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | History
Rating: ****

This Ken Burns documentary illustrates the United States’ experiment with banning alcoholic beverages. The story is told in three parts.

Part I documents the adverse effect alcohol consumption had on Americans, especially men, who drank away their pay while women and children suffered poverty and abuse.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union organized to successfully (albeit temporarily) shut down saloons, and inadvertently providing a political outlet for women that helped the suffrage movement. On the other hand, alcohol played an important social role, especially in immigrant communities.  The dark side of the temperance movement is that it was made up of rural and small-town Protestants from the mid-west and south who were prejudice against the immigrant groups in the big cities.  The strongest opponents to prohibition were German-American brewers, so it was no surprise that anti-German sentiment during WWI helped sway the national opinion towards Prohibition.

Part II shows America under Prohibition.  Interestingly enough, many people (including politicians who voted for the amendment) expected beer and wine to be permitted under Prohibition.  The Anti-Saloon League under Wayne Wheeler are able to influence the drafting of the Volstead Act which enforced Prohibition by banning all beverages with more than one-half of one-percent alcohol.  There were many loopholes such as people who stocked up before the ban or those who could get prescriptions for medicinal alcohol.  While many in the heartland were pleased to abstain, places like New York City exploded with illegal importation and distilling of liquors.  These illegal activities were soon consolidated under organized crime bosses whose territorial battles contributed to notorious violence.

Part III illustrates the growing awareness that the levels of hypocrisy and unintended consequences of Prohibition, ultimately leading to repeal.

An interesting aspect of this documentary is it shows how the Prohibition story accompanies the increased role of women in American public life.  The temperance movement was led by women.  Mabel Walker Willebrandt enforced the Volstead Act in her duties as U.S. Assistant Attorney General.  Lois Long documented the glamour and sexual liberation of speakeasy nightlife in her articles for the The New Yorker.  And Pauline Sabin lead the political movement for repeal as head of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

Like Ken Burn’s other works, this was an excellent and informative documentary, richly illustrated with period photographs and films and words read from primary documents by actors and narrators.  I learned a lot from this film.

 

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