'Prohibition' premiere review: Get drunk on this good stuff

Watching Prohibition, you can almost hear Ken Burns knock back a shot of Bushmills, slam the glass on the bar, and yell, “Yee haw — let’s make us some television!” There’s a hot-cheeked vigor to this three-night production on PBS, crammed with history, revelation, drama, and opinion. It’s both an eye-opener to the past, and a remarkable metaphor for the woozy present we’re reeling through today.

Working with his long-time co-producer and co-director, Lynn Novick, with an invaluable assist from Daniel Okrent, author of the authoritative book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Burns lays out the facts and figures of liquor consumption in 19th century America, and how that thirst gave rise to one of the most powerful and effective grass-roots political protests in our nation’s history.

Burns and Novick marshal their facts and place them on the silver tongue of Peter Coyote, Prohibition‘s chief narrator, along with a host of historians, eye-witnesses, and critical theorists — it’s the tried and true Ken Burns method, yet the method is never trite or tired here. The average American male over the age of 15, we’re told early on, gargled down about 88 bottles of whiskey a year. Note that factoid is confined to “male.” One result of this was a substantial amount of drunken abuse of women and children, a factor that helped inspire a wide array of responses, from the Temperance movement (“capital-T total abstinence”), to feminist movements for both liquor law reform and the vote, to the group calling themselves the Washingtonians, who took a pledge of abstinence… and were accused by the abstinent clergy as being “ungodly.”

The most fascinating element of Prohibition is the way liquor consumption inspired such fervor in so many, often contradictory, ways. As Burns has pointed out in interviews, Prohibition was supported by both the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP; the 18th Amendment is the only one in our Constitution that limits human freedom rather than expanding it; and the Volstead Act that followed it made anything containing one-half of 1% illegal — Burns favorite example is that thus, German chocolate cake was technically illegal.

From the rise of gangster culture to Alcoholics Anonymous, Prohibition seems not to miss anything; if you want to be able to tell your friends where the terms “bootlegger” and “scofflaws” came from, belly up to this TV bar. What Boardwalk Empire presents with elaborate costumes and at a slower pace, Prohibition presents with the energy of a flapper doing the Charleston during the Roaring ’20s — the period during which women, as chronicled by Burns and Novick, began to enjoy the freedom to drink and party nearly as freely as men.

It’s easy to see why Prohibition isn’t merely history, but metaphor: With its chronicle of a single wedge issue that united disparate groups that felt disenfranchised; its emphasis on loss of jobs and the blow to the economy that the 18th Amendment dealt the country; and the grass-roots efforts to seize control back to the people, the issues raised by the Prohibition era are also the stuff of arguments that rage across Fox News and MSNBC and news media today.

As the writer Pete Hamill puts it in one of his many fine talking-head appearances in Prohibition, it all boiled down to that most fundamental of all American feelings: “Who the hell are you to tell me how to live?”

Prohibition will air its second and third parts on Monday and Tuesday nights, and the entire series will be rerun during this week; check your local PBS listings.

Twitter: @kentucker

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  • Javadude54

    Sounds like a very interesting documentary. I will have to check it out. Gotta see how this relates to the whole “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” thing.

    • stickittotheman

      Funny how the concept of grass-roots movement has such a pure, wholesome and positive reputation and yet, in this example, ended up making things worse. Makes you wonder what other movements are, good-hearted as they are, actually messing things up.

      • stickittotheman

        Perhaps it is the HOW things are done, rather than the ideology at work. For instance, people thought Eugenics was best for the world and then imposed it on the weakest and poorest elements.

  • Kelly

    An interesting program on an interesting time.

  • Moderation

    If how “you” live doesn’t affect me and mine, I don’t care how “you” live, or even if “you” live or die.

  • Lauren

    Part 1 was great. Of all things to bring the KKK and women suffragettes together – booze? Also, they made a great point about how many people related to the industry lost work because of the amendment.

  • 3reddogs

    Thanks to PBS and Netflix I’ve watched every documentary Ken Burns has ever produced, from the Shakers and the Brooklyn Bridge to baseball and jazz. His body of work is a national treasure.

  • CiCi

    Part 1 was very interesting. As with all Burn’s documentaries, you are hooked before you realize it. And there are always some facts that come out that you never knew. Coyote is a great narrator too. Looking forward to the next two installments

    • Annjulei

      por favor, vcs ja tem a data da feira do livro de Paraty para o ano de 2011???fico no adurago,grata,letícia

  • PJ

    Burns is fantastic. Civil War and Baseball are both great. Jazz is also very good. I have never even had a chance to see his WWII doc.

    • econruth

      Check out his series on the National Parks – its wonderful!

  • Frank Wright

    On the whole his doc ‘s are well done , however , the W.W 2 doc was more like comic book history .He should have done a better job of vetting some of the interviewee’s .

  • Templar

    You would think that this would have taught TPTB that if prohibition didn’t work with alcohol it won’t work with drugs either. If drugs were grown here as a cash crop and the government taxed them as they do alcohol and tobacco, we could save billions. If there’s no profit in it there’s no incentive to hook kids on it. It would break the backs of the drug lords and eliminate the wars at the border. Grow it as a cash crop, and dispense it legally. If an addict can get his/her fix for a few bucks there’s no need to steal or prostitute themselves. Yes, some will OD and die. That’s likely to happen anyway. Take a look at Amsterdam and think about it.

    • dp

      Prohibition DID work to an extent. It reduced alcohol consumption by 50-60%. And drugs that are currently illegal today were used a LOT more often than when they were legal.

      You raise the issue of taxing drugs. If the government didn’t spend exorbitant sums of money on military forces that never see combat, or on entitlement programs that discourage people from getting out of bed and going to work, or on a bazillion other ineffective, wasteful programs, there would be no need for additional tax revenue.

      You say that “If an addict can get his/her fix for a few bucks there’s no need to steal or prostitute themselves.” Well, what if they need 10 hits a day? A hundred? A thousand? Some addicts spend THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS A DAY on their habits. And what basis do you have for stating that legal products would be cheaper than illegal ones?

      And then, you conclude by saying “Yes, some will OD and die.” What if was YOUR spouse, YOUR best friend, or YOUR children?

      Legalizing drugs will make things worse, not better.

      • Bill Short

        Portugal has shown us that you are wrong. Do a little research and don’t give me that “what aboot the children” madness.

      • @dp

        No argument about ridiculous government spending, but what hikes the price of street drugs is all of the middlemen and their cost of doing business. Enforcers etc. The actual growers of drugs make very little. The clinical cost of a shot of heroin is under $10. Or morphine, opium etc. If there were no big profit the cartels would dissolve.

  • MiaRose

    I learned about Prohibition in history class and learned why it failed, but until watching Part I of this documentary, I never really understood why it was passed in the first place. Ken Burns shows us why, and now I can symphathize with those who were in favor of it. If you haven’t seen Part I, it’s definitely worth your time. It’s an eye-opener. Makes me glad to live in today’s America – flawed as it may be.

  • Dave

    Good documentary. I’ll drink to that!

    • Agboyinu

      And of course you are right Tom. Ending Alcohol Prohibition did nitohng to reduce the murder rate, violence in the streets, or the number of criminals. And you know I might even believe it if I hadn’t studied the history of alcohol prohibition. Now I’m a free market kind of guy and believe that if you subsidize criminals you will get more of them. And that economics guy, Milton Friedman, agrees with me.Oh, yeah. The dug war was invented as a racist measure. It is unfortunate that you support racism. It always amazes me that folks on the right believe economics takes a holiday where drugs are concerned. It would tend to indicate that belief in Prohibition is a cult and not founded on reason. Well your church has a lot of members. But the worship services get a little ugly.

  • Victor

    Have most of Ken Burns’ work on dvd. Saw the first installment on Prohibition, very enjoyable but can’t wait to see the gangster era.
    Many years ago after he completed The Civil War there was a blurb in TV Guide that his next project was going to be the History of Television. It never happened, I sure wish he would tackle that one.

    • TR

      He also says he is making a Vietnam War show.

    • Zilly

      PBS had a great two season series of shows called, “Pioneers of Television” about all the different types of genres of TV. For example, an hour about how the sitcom came to be and the westerns of the 50s & 60s. They were produced a number of years ago, but they are great. Look for those.

  • Tiffany

    I watched The Civil War this summer when PBS was repeating it and it was seriously one of the best things that I have watched, ever, and that is not an exaggeration. I remember watching Baseball and realizing that I had watched all of the innings. So I just finished watching part 2 of this program and it was so good. Ken Burns just has the magic touch and my money for DVD’s.

  • hambone

    Corredt me if wrong, but the series stated that women fought to raise the age of consent from 10 years old to 16 years.

    • Akshay

      M. Simon : you neglected to anwesr my question. Have you ever seen (met) an addict. Preferably one that had no intrest whatsoever in recovering, but one in a hospital will do. And once you’ve seen that, you will thoroughly understand the next question : how will you prevent that from happening ? Because a LOT of cost is indeed justified preventing people from becoming addicted.Criminals will be criminals whether or not drugs are involved. I’m sure there is something they’d trade that you’d disagree with. How about trade in girls ? They’ll have to turn to stuff like that. Criminals don’t become citizens because their market evaporates. In fact, they usually become worse criminals. That’s another reason fighting them (physically) is the only anwesr.

  • hambone

    correct me if wrong, but the series stated that women fought for prohibition and to raise the age of consent from 10 years old to 16???

    • Ifka

      Nice article by Mr. Withers. He works with my Dad at the nwespaper.If you’re interested in the Fesenmeier and Little Switzerland breweries, please check out my new website, Huntingtonbeercans.com.Thanks!

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