Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Movie Review #42: Ken Burns' Prohibition

Following in the wake of my marathon run of The History of Rome, I had some interest in getting a little more history. Primed as I was for some history, when Jeff recommended this documentary to me it was only a matter of time. Luckily, it's on Netflix!

Short review: It's a fascinating look at America a century ago. Even if you're not usually interested in history, I recommend giving the documentary a shot. Start watching it, and give it a chance to drag you in.


At the turn of the century, the United States was primed to enact one of the most fascinating experiments in history: banning the sale of alcohol. This documentary takes three episodes to tell its story, each episode running about an hour and a half--each practically a movie in their own right.

The first episode covers the social and political movements that led up to the passing of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The second episode covers life in the United States while the 18th Amendment was in effect as well as the government's struggle to enforce the law. The third episode details the forces that led to the ratification of the 21st Amendment: the one that repealed the 18th Amendment, and the only instance of an amendment to the Constitution counteracting another.


We like to think that we, as a people, have changed over the years, and in many ways we have. However, what struck me as I watched Prohibition, just as it did when I listened to The History of Rome, is that even though the civilization around us has changed, the people within it have not. The methods people use to attain and maintain power, the way people manipulate the masses, and above all the common folk keeping their heads down and simply making due with whatever hand they're dealt--these things seem fairly constant throughout history.

In any case, Prohibition is a fascinating subject in and of itself. As a practical teetotaler myself, the public fascination with alcohol has always intrigued me, and though I think practically every child in America learns about Prohibition in history class, it's usually just sort of mentioned in passing. After all, do you really want to focus a lot of time telling 14-year-olds about the time America decided that, hey, alcohol is actually pretty okay compared to the alternative.

This documentary expands heavily on the entire process, though, starting with some of the early dry movements, which were predominantly led by women. Women who, by the way, could not vote at the time, and were generally not allowed in saloons either.

Each episode of the documentary has its own interesting main characters, from the early organizers like Susan B. Anthony to the gangsters who thrived during Prohibition like Al Capone to the politicians that ended that era, like Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I won't regale the entire story here, both because I don't have that kind of time and, really, you ought to just watch the documentary if you're so interested. However, I will share an interesting thread you can follow through the whole thing.

The temperance movement to ban alcohol is generally seen as a movement fueled by women, who had to deal with their drunken husbands coming home after spending time in their men-only saloons, the predominant source of liquor in those days. Clearly there was more to it than that (religious organizations played a huge part in rallying people to ratify the 18th Amendment), but women were a large part of it, even though they wouldn't get the right to vote until afterward--the 19th Amendment is what gave women suffrage.

In the years after Prohibition began, saloons fell apart as an institution, replaced instead by speakeasies. Speakeasies did not generally bar women from entry--after all, if you're breaking the law to capitalize on the liquor trade, why would you turn away paying customers? So, visiting speakeasies became fairly trendy for women, and soon they were drinking as much as the men.

So, even though Prohibition was passed before the women who pushed for it were given the right to vote, I think it was this forced acceptance of women in bars that helped repeal the 18th Amendment in the end. Prohibition is a fascinating study in women's rights all on its own. It's almost like, hey, if you let women into these previously male-dominated activities things might get better for everyone.

That's hardly the only lesson to be learned by Prohibition, though. At its core, it tells an interesting lesson we still haven't learned today, it seems: what the people want, they'll get, even if they need to turn to the black market to get it. Want to ban abortions? Get ready for back alley procedures that put the mothers' lives at risk. Want to keep marijuana illegal? Say hello to the massive drug trade coming across our borders.

Anyway, check it out if you get the chance. History has a lot to teach us.

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