SIFF 2021: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

A good example of my white privilege is that I went 32 years without realizing the song “It’s Not Easy Being Green” was about race. It is not like I ever stopped to think about it. And that’s exactly the point. I never thought about it.

I never thought about Sesame Street’s triumph as the first edutainment show competing with commercial programs, one squarely marketed for inner-city youth. How the show was designed around the streets of Harlem. How it utilized this perspective to bring education to everyone, to the broadest audience possible, starting with those often overlooked by television.

Orson Welles once said on The Dick Cavett Show that “Sesame Street is the greatest thing to happen to television.” This particular documentary does not wish to make any such grandiose claim, but by simply showing the production of the show and exactly why it was made, we can draw the very same conclusion. The institution of PBS (Public Broadcast Service) looms especially large over a present generation of filmmakers. The shows on these public access stations are cornerstone supplements to children’s educations. It’s no wonder that, as generations of filmmakers who grew up with them have went on to make their own movies, it has become trendy to produce films about them. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011) I Am Big Bird (2014), Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), and now, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, are among recent successes. Our childhoods are truly blank checks waiting to be cashed.

There is one major point of cynicism to consider about this documentary. The film is produced by HBO Documentary Films and HBO is the streaming home of Sesame Street, proper. For several years, they have also been the exclusive means for accessing new runs of the show. Nine months later, episodes run on PBS stations, if they choose to carry the belated program. For a documentary designed to showcase that, of all shows, Sesame Street was created for inner city youths especially and that it demanded the lowest barrier of entry, that perspective rings hollow from a service that has designated a payment wall for new episodes of the very show it’s arguing was important because it was accessible. It’s a headache-inducing double play, both celebrating what made the show fundamentally game-changing for television, as presented by the company who has removed that very asset.

The good news is, the documentary is a very good one. We get to go behind the scenes. The audience meets all of the actors and players on the show. It showcases exactly what made Sesame Street a foundational work. It does not go much further but according to its thesis, it all works out as compelling and well-documented material. About halfway through, it becomes a masterclass on puppetry from Jim Henson and Frank Oz themselves. It shows that, not only was the means of access unique, but the presentation of the show was monumentally experimental, and compelling, in and of itself.

The documentary, on the contrary, is a straightforward work. There is a lot to learn from it, which is a valid kind of film to make. It does not especially need high-minded artistry, if it can sufficiently fulfill the task of creating a history of an important television show. It is not the first PBS-centered documentary and will not be the last. Given that Street Gang covers only the creation of the show, with five more decades of material left on the table, the onus will have to fall on someone else to tell the whole story. There are other books and documentaries that will do that. This is an important documentary, for outlining a social history, one that many of us have missed, one that reminds us of our privilege, as reflected back to us by HBO Max, the regrettably exclusive home for new Sesame Street.

7/10

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