REVIEW: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 107 minutes
    Release Date: April 23rd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Screen Media Films / HBO Documentary Films
    Director(s): Marilyn Agrelo
    Writer(s): Michael Davis (book)

We simply show it.

You always wonder about the behind-the-scenes dynamics on projects in any medium that prove themselves profoundly revolutionary because you hope such great work wasn’t created on the backs of under-appreciated laborers for a totalitarian figure hording all the praise. You don’t want to find out about emotional and psychological warfare masked by smiling faces or a need to toe the company line so as not to get blacklisted from the industry—especially when the topic of discussion is as groundbreakingly inclusive as “Sesame Street” was (it first aired in November of 1969) and remains (on HBO). Hearing the program’s “parents” (creator/writer Joan Ganz Cooney and director/writer Jon Stone) go out of their way to credit the other (and their close collaborators) therefore earns a huge sigh of relief.

Hearing them (and Joe Raposo, Norman Stiles, Sharon Lerner, and many more in new and archival interviews) speak about the “family” atmosphere never feels anything less than genuine. And hearing their children (namely those of Stone and Muppets creator Jim Henson) talk about how little they saw their parents reveals those “family” sentiments were more than mere anecdote too. To work extremely long hours to fulfill a very ambitious production schedule and still somehow enjoy every single minute of it is rare. That most of the people director Marliyn Agrelo assembles for her documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street kept working on the show for over four decades is a testament to that camaraderie and the wholehearted belief in the work’s cultural and social importance.

The one glaring exception throughout this 100-minute lovefest depicting the first two decades of “Sesame Street” (as based on Michael Davis‘ book) was Matt Robinson—the actor who portrayed Gordon for the show’s initial five years. While I’ll let the film explain why he left (the context of which demands much more time than what’s provided), it’s interesting to note the significance of his departure as a failing of the show even if this account refuses to see it as one. When you have so many white people talking about their desire to touch the hearts and minds of impoverished, urban children, it’s tough to watch as Robinson (doing what he was hired to do considering what he did beforehand) is more or less scuttled away.

His children (Holly Robinson Peete and Matt Robinson III) and ex-wife (Dolores Robinson) are given the space to talk about his legacy, but it’s not a stretch to say they also spin the positive angle of his contributions while helping to gloss over the politics of his departure. And that’s understandable considering Street Gang‘s goal to champion the show and cement its place in television history as an outlier that truly put educational value above capitalistic gains. Going into further detail with Robinson’s story and spending any time at all with his co-stars’ reactions to the role being re-cast (Roscoe Orman) rather than written-off is a divergence that demands its own film outright. That them mentioning it at all becomes somewhat of a victory, however, still feels weird.

But that’s the type of sacrifice these sprawling, era-spanning documentaries make. Agrelo and company have to weigh the good and the bad of the raw material they have and find a path that succeeds at showcasing their intent. To have Ganz Cooney talking about leveraging her talent to remain steward of her idea despite men’s voices saying a woman showrunner would lose it respect is great. Having Stone delve into the problems he had with television (the ones that ultimately made him quit the industry before Ganz Cooney’s call) in order to compare and contrast his freedom to build “Sesame Street” outside of them is enlightening. And who wouldn’t enjoy Raposo and Stiles talking shop where it comes to comedy (songwriting) and introspection (Will Lee‘s death)?

You must be able to accept the value of what’s on-screen despite what isn’t even if the result causes the end product to seem shallower than it perhaps is. That doesn’t mean I think this film is a one-dimensional look holding to an agenda. Focusing on the positive doesn’t inherently mean you’re hiding secrets. It simply shows an impulse towards celebration. And there’s so much about “Sesame Street” that deserves to be celebrated considering how it really did change our perception of television and the power of marketing. Why sell cereal and candy when you can sell literacy instead? Why seek to distract kids with hollow noise when you can distract them with learning instead? Ganz Cooney brought educators into the writers’ room to challenge the medium’s potential.

And it worked. “Sesame Street” projected representation into millions of households that wouldn’t have otherwise known what true representation meant (see: a standoff in Mississippi revealing how often politicians will tie themselves in knots to take a stand that’s inherently racist without stating as much publicly). You had white characters, Black characters, Latino characters, and monsters (ranging from Big Bird’s child-like innocence to Oscar the Grouch’s apathy—both of which were performed by the great Caroll Spinney) co-existing with children of all races who were as yet untouched by the generational hate America bestows upon its youth as though a rite of passage. Ganz Cooney, Stone, and Henson instilled a level of integrity that they passionately fought to maintain. The result became a landmark never to be forgotten.

[1] (from left) Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jon Stone Photograph by Robert Fuhring/Courtesy Sesame Workshop/HBO
[2] Carroll Spinney and Oscar The Grouch Photo Credit: Luke Geissbühler

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