Film Reviews

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street – Documentary Review

If Sesame Street is so great, how come no one seems to know the way there? For 53 years we’ve been singing about finding it. But back in 1969 people really had to be given directions.

Sesame Street premiered on November 10th on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). PBS itself had been up and running for a whole week at that point and so people really didn’t know how to find this brand new, genre defining show. The then also fresh faced Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) launched a campaign to let people know ‘How to get to Sesame Street’. This campaign was to educate the public, literally to let them know what was coming and how to find it. But perhaps most interesting, there was a huge emphasis on targeting inner city, African American families. These were potentially the people who could benefit most, so these were the people who needed to know about the new show. Set in a brownstone, inner city neighbourhood of the kind its target audiences might live in, Sesame Street was a whole new type of show.

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Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street dishes out these fascinating nuggets about its subject with an enjoyable regularity. Commissioned by HBO, the company who took control of Sesame Street in what many saw as a somewhat controversial deal in 2015, the documentary was never going to be a hard hitting exposé. There’s no mention of the initial dearth of female puppeteers, with Henson reportedly having said that “women might not be strong enough to hold the puppets over the long hours of taping”, or the accusations of racism made by Hispanic activists criticising the early version of the show. Instead we’re told the stories of successes. Instead we have happy interviews with female puppeteers, and Maria Rodriguez and Luis Rodriguez, who play Maria and Luis on the show.

Yet it’s hard to criticise this choice. Those Hispanic activists were members of a committee commissioned by CTW; the reason Street Gang is able to show female puppeteers or Hispanic actors is because changes were made. The producers of the show didn’t just listen to criticism, they sought it out. This ethos of research and reaction, of growing, and of an organisation wanting to learn is what shines through. Not enough representation? We agree, here it is. You can’t ask fairer than that.

Still, there are hints of the harsher realities of working on the show. Children now grown up talking about parents who were often not home. One particularly telling moment is when Holly Robinson talks about seeing her father Matt, who played the character Gordon in the first three seasons, on television with children who weren’t his own, being an obvious father figure; something she felt she felt was missing in her life. It’s also through conversations and interviews about Matt that we see another level of frustration. Matt was an activist within the African American community, and although Sesame Street was clearly a hugely positive force in the fight against racism, there is the clear feeling that he left the show due to his frustrations at it not being more head on in its role.

Clearly the show was able to have an effect. Another fascinating piece of history highlighted is how the Mississippi Board of Education Television originally refused to broadcast Sesame Street in Memphis. The reason they gave is because they believed it was too loud and distracting for children, yet there is clear implication that the real reason is because the show depicted a positive, multi-ethnic community. After a commercial TV station stepped in and started showing it anyway, the board backed down.

The way these stories are told is through archival footage and past interviews. It has the feel of a documentary that should have been made years ago, but instead was somehow forgotten and is only now being put together with lost footage. This time capsule feel plays nicely into the nostalgia its target audience – people who grew up watching Sesame Street on PBS but can now afford HBO – will feel. But it is wonderful to hear from the founders of what has become a global institution; people like  Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, Lloyd Morrisett, and of course Jim Henson.

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Though it may do so with rose tinted spectacles, Street Gang tells the story of a unique group of people who came together to change the way children could be taught. Learning from advertisers, producers, educators, and entertainers were able to use the dark arts of advertising for good, ‘selling’ children the alphabet and changing the world for the better. This documentary is a celebration of something that has helped millions upon millions of people access education in a way that they never could before. While there is no doubt a gritty, dark, and just as honest way of telling that story, this isn’t it. Nor does it need to be.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street will be available on Digital Download from 31st January.

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