Last summer, “Sesame Street” was widely praised for a town hall it hosted on anti-racism as a means of explaining the protests for racial justice happening around the world in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police officers to both children and adults. “Sesame Street,” the educational children’s television program that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, is known for not dumbing down tough subjects or talking down to its young audience. Of course, with that anti-racism video and any other progressive strides “Sesame Street” has made over the years, there’s always a subset of its audience who condemn the show for getting too political, or too “woke.” Those viewers likely don’t realize that the driving force behind the series’ creation in 1969 was to grab inner city, Black children who weren’t being given all the educational tools they needed. These origins, and the diverse group of voices involved who have turned “Sesame Street” into an enduring success, are explored in director Marilyn Agrelo’s new documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which is based on Michael Davis’s book and had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend.
Agrelo’s film focuses primarily on the first two decades of the show’s history. Behind the scenes videos and photos, archival interviews with creators who have passed away (such as legendary puppeteer Jim Henson, composer Joe Raposo, and director Jon Stone), and new interviews with participants who are still with us (and quite a few of whom are still involved with the show to this day) explain first how and why the show was created, and later the format and what made it such a huge hit. The new interviews are particularly insightful. Participants include series creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, writer Normal Stiles, curriculum coordinator Sharon Lerner, puppeteers Fran Brill and Caroll Spinney (whose interviews for this film were recorded prior to his passing in 2019), and actors Sonia Manzano, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, and Roscoe Orman. For those who have long since passed away, their children were interviewed to provide some additional insights; these include Jon Stone’s daughters, Brian and Lisa Henson, and Holly Robinson Peete and Matt Robinson, whose father Matt Robinson originally played Gordon on “Sesame Street.” Having such a wide breadth of people from different disciplines around to voice their perspectives on making the show is invaluable and makes the story the film has to tell feel much more personal than a typical behind-the-scenes doc.
If “Street Gang” has any major flaw, it’s that its subject is too big for one movie. Even when honing in on the series’ early years, it feels like the documentary misses or skips over a lot. At times it feels like the film is trying to avoid controversy; for instance, the long, hard schedules endured during filming by the likes of Stone and Henson are mentioned briefly but not explored very deeply. There’s also a quick discussion of Roosevelt Franklin, a Black muppet created by Robinson who wasn’t well-received by audiences who saw the way he spoke and acted as perpetuating Black stereotypes, while Brill brings up answering a call for female puppeteers, as the creators tried to diversify their talent after having all female muppets played by men for a period of time. Any of those topics are rich enough to deserve their own documentary, and perhaps because of this “Street Gang” would have been better suited as a series instead of a two hour movie.
At the same time, a lot of “Street Gang” is delightful, heart-warming, and hopeful, delivering all the warm fuzzies you’d expect from a film about “Sesame Street,” especially for viewers who are fans of the show. The first third is perhaps the strongest part, which sees the likes of Cooney, Stone, Henson, and others coming together to fill a void they saw in children’s television at the time. They knew how much children retained from watching TV (it’s mentioned how kids could recognize beer brands from commercials), and wanted to use commercial techniques to create a show that was entertainment but filled with educational content. It’s interesting to see how creatives and educators came together to make this thing, despite their different backgrounds. But the most important part is what I mentioned at the top of this review: the target audience for “Sesame Street” was inner city children, particularly Black children, and that fed into the look and feel of the show. As opposed to the whimsical backdrop of most children’s programs at the time, “Sesame Street” had a realistic set. It took place on an action-packed city street, and the neighborhood was populated by puppet monsters and people of different races who all lived together harmoniously. Delgado talks about how his role of Luis on the show was the first role he received that wasn’t a Latino stereotype. The diversity is shown in the variety of guests who appeared on “Sesame Street” as well; one particularly memorable clip that seems to get at what the show is all about sees Jesse Jackson leading a group of children in a chant where they declare “I am somebody.” “Sesame Street” imagined what the world could be, and gave its audience permission to aspire to that.
There are other beautiful moments touched on throughout the rest of the film as well, such as the way the show dealt with the death of actor Will Lee, who played shopkeeper Mr. Hooper; instead of writing his character off, the creators turned it into an opportunity to try to explain the concept of death to children. There’s a decent amount of time spent on the development of some of the puppet characters in the show (it’s great to see clips of the relationship between Henson and Frank Oz, who interestingly was not among those interviewed for this film), and a funny and endearing montage of bloopers featuring them is among the film’s highlights. In some ways, “Street Gang” is a bit all over the place, and it feels like there is still so much left to say about the landmark series and the people who made it so special when the credits start to roll. But there’s never a moment when it isn’t a joy to watch. “Sesame Street” has always been progressive, it changed the face of children’s television, and it has always been made with love at its center, and “Street Gang” at least leaves us with that.
Runtime: 107 minutes.