Friday, October 19, 2012

Prohibition: A movie by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

I just finished watching the three part documentary Prohibition via Netflix.  Between being gone much of this summer and the popularity of the movie on Netflix, I'm a little slow viewing the film.  However, it was worth the wait.

Even for the veteran beer reader, the documentary does a fantastic job of explaining the entirety of the time period.  For me, many of the details of the politics of repeal were completely new.  Another excellent Ken Burns' film.  Rather than doing a scene by scene analysis, here are three thoughts I found especially interesting that won't spoil the film.

First, the interplay of women's rights, the suffrage movement and temperance.  While many are aware of the role of the Women's Christian Temperance Union to passing prohibition, this is only one aspect.  From the early temperance movement to the final repeal made possible by the efforts of Pauline Sabin and her Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, the history of prohibition is intertwined with a growing personal and political independence of women from the late 1800's through the jazz age until repeal in 1933.  The conflicted story of Mabel Walker Willenbrandt, the nation's enforcer of prohibition, is worth the viewing alone.  Women were searching for identity and voice in this time period and prohibition was one of the defining issues of this fight.

Second, the complexity of prohibition.  The inability, or lack of will, to enforce prohibition is an exemplar to understand the limits of democracy.  While the our government can pass whatever law they wish, prohibition demonstrates that the will and consent of the people must be behind it.  The difference between what people thought they 18th Amendment meant and the application of the Volstead Act is also a lesson in being an informed citizen to prevent moralistic forces from using government for their own ends.

And, finally, how eerily similar the divided politics of prohibition is to today's political morass.  Through out the film, I saw parallels between the dry/wet politics of prohibition and our modern red/blue state split or the FoxNews/MSNBC dichotomy.  Beyond noting the analogous demagoguery and moralism, I will refrain from continuing the comparison further since this is a beer blog rather than a political statement.

Great beer film and worth the effort for any beer geek or student of history, especially since beer related analysis was probably left out of your high school history class.

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