Prohibition: A Bad Idea Revisited

 

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid, ca. 1921

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid, ca. 1921

Prohibition from PBS is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.

It airs on WOSU in October 2011.

It’s a bit of a departure for Ken Burns in some ways, as it leaves behind the reverence and awe he showered on the Natural Parks (National Parks: America’s Best Idea) and the World War II veterans (The War) for a more journalistic look at America.

On the other hand, this is what Burns and his team does best: digging through the misconceptions, the hyperbole, and the stories that hide larger stories to find what makes (or made) America what it is.

Morality is on trial, here. The churches railed against the evils of alcohol. The growing Women’s Suffrage movement of the early 1900s joined with the temperance movement (though is was an odd union, to say the least), and, suddenly, the Constitution was changed.

Just as suddenly, thugs became celebrities, responsible authority was rendered impotent, and social mores in place for a century were obliterated. Americans drank more than ever.

Daniel Okrent‘s book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, on which the film is based, is an amazing read, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in years. The documentary should be equally enthralling.

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