Review: Prohibition

Image Source: PBS

Prohibition is a 2011 miniseries from PBS. It traces the movements originating in the 19th century to the installation of the infamous 18th amendment, which saw the nationwide ban of all alcoholic beverages, and examines the effects of the amendment, including a rise in bootlegging and organized crime. Prohibition features actors such as Peter Coyote, Pete Hamill, and Tom Hanks, and is directed by prominent documentarian Ken Burns.

Ken Burns is one of the best documentarians working right now because he has a great eye for simple and interesting time periods or topics, as well as the skill to piece it together in a coherent and entertaining way. Prohibition is brilliant in its simplicity. There’s never a dull moment in the series, fitting almost a quarter of a century of history into just about five hours. It does a great job at including the obvious figures, such as Al Capone, as well as educating the uneducated with lesser-known figures including Al Smith and George Remus, a person whose riveting story has somehow avoided the movie treatment. P The documentary also examines the many effects of prohibition, including how it hurt the economy and made it arguably easier to acquire a drink, and how it was the catalyst for the emergence of extraordinarily powerful crime organizations. Another intriguing aspect was how it steered the nation towards a less modest America that actually did make women more equal, allowing them into places and giving them opportunities that were previously only reserved for men.

Prohibition, despite nearing its 10th anniversary, has actually become extremely relevant, not only with parallels to current movements, but also because of its similarities to the current debate over marijuana. As I was watching I was astonished that many of the arguments presented for prohibition were uncannily similar to the ones presented for marijuana, both for and against.

Prohibition is a fantastic documentary. Nearly flawless in execution, it recalls a naturally interesting time period of excess and extreme change in many facets of American life. I believe that this documentary is only getting better with time, and, considering its successful presence on Netflix, is a great documentary to watch.