Prohibition is a documentary series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. If you have seen or heard of Boardwalk Empire then you will probably pick this up as it expands on the snippet of complexity depicted in the HBO drama to properly retell the extraordinary story of what happens when a freedom-loving nation outlaws the sale of intoxicating liquor -- and the disastrous unintended consequences that follow.
This documentary looks into this era as an utterly relevant cautionary tale that raises profound questions about the proper role of government and the limits of legislating morality as America 'goes dry' and millions of law-abiding Americans become immediate lawbreakers overnight.
Burns focuses on the stories of the petty whiskey-jobbers, big-time bootleggers, and of course brutal gangsters before turning attention to the lobbyists and political corruption that became rife. Particular focus is given to 1933, with the country in the throes of the Great Depression, a time when Americans have finally had enough -- and rally to repeal 18th Amendment and put an end to Prohibition for good.
The documentary is told in three epic parts that are each just over two hours long, but the real surprise is how quickly these hours pass as the documentary grips and informs in equal measure. Ken Burns has been making documentaries since the 1980's but this is quite possibly his best work given the immense topic and televised format, although he has directed other features for PBS, this is no puns intended, his least driest yet.
The first part 'A Nation of Drunkards' highlights alcohol as a serious initial problem in the US. It is quite shocking to realize the number of drinking spots that were frequented by the lower class workers who spent the majority of their pay on liquor to the point that lunches were given away in lieu of prioritizing sales of booze. It quickly moves attention to the number of supporters of prohibition and rallies, particularly the propaganda and the racial hate that fueled the bans. The footage of these recovered rallies and still images are quite shocking given the size and impact of them.
Parts two and three, 'A Nation of Scofflaws' and 'A Nation of Hypocrites', delves into the years after prohibition is enacted, given an extremely detailed account from almost every facet of society about what happened next. Bootlegging and the inevitable empire of crime that resulted and the proliferation of extreme corruption in government and in the judicial system are examined in detail. Most shocking however are the ludicrous responses by the FBI to combat the crisis which included poisoning bootlegged goods and other ridiculous measures that made things worse.
Rafts of fascinating characters from both sides of the issue are introduced and their stories weave into the documentary effortlessly. The mob wars of Chicago are given great focus also as Al Capone is introduced and thoroughly analyzed. The instability of the time also lead to some very funny and sarcastic moments that are also captured by Burns in the form of bar signs and other paraphernalia that includes such slogans as "If they saw Jesus turning water into wine, they'd bust him... 'There he goes again."
Prohibition mainly succeeds in explaining how vastly society changed during this time, at the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the Great Depression. It is a Herculean undertaking, but in an extremely incisive, informative and entertaining way, Burns has created the definitive guide to the prohibition era that is surely the best document in any format. It is worth noting that the three-part feature is peppered with fascinating narrators including Paul Giamatti, Jeremy Irons and Samuel L Jackson among many others. Prohibition comes highly recommended and should be regarded as a serious text for this complex era in history.