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‘Street Gang’ Reminds Us Of What Sesame Street Is Supposed To Be – Review

Big Bird, Grover, Bert and Ernie…some of the most recognizable icons in all of television. Not an overstatement by any means, Sesame Street is one of the most watched children programs of all time. Unlike other massive historical shows, adults and kids alike can count off Sesame Street characters with both hands still to this day.

So with all the popularity and influence, why has it gone undervalued in the last few years? In the modern age of disinformation, it’s sadly no surprise to see everyone’s favorite Muppets out of the spotlight. Media literacy has never been more crucial, especially to children, and where are the Sesame Street gang to be found? Airing new content on a pricey streaming service while advertising DoorDash during the Super Bowl. Someone please make it make sense.

Still from Street Gang - documentary
A still from Street Gang – How We Got To Sesame Street by Marilyn Agrelo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Thankfully, someone has heard this call – filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo. Her answer comes in the form of Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, a new documentary based on the 2008 novel of the same name. The film serves as a deep dive into the origins and first pivotal years of the series. Although not necessarily groundbreaking, Agrelo’s film comes in the most unusual time for Sesame Street and finds an essential purpose: making sure the public no longer takes it for granted. In her journey across the show’s history, she brings along original producers, actors, puppeteers, and even family of key players who have long passed. Various points of view are expected from any stellar documentary, but Agrelo truly shines by keeping a unique focus.

Beginning with the show’s conception in the late ’60s, there is plenty of fresh ground to cover until moving into the next decades. The doc has a clear intention and doesn’t overstay its welcome as it already gets close to the two hour mark. Sadly, this means fans don’t get to see the likes of late Sesame icons like Elmo, but there’s plenty of time for Kermit the Frog! Newer fans probably don’t even associate Sesame Street with Kermit – or the fact that his signature song, “It’s Not Easy being Green”, is actually from this program, and not The Muppet Show. It’s easy to get lost in all the lore; things fans are dying to see like how the hell one person can fit into the Big Bird costume or the debate of just how close Bert and Ernie really are. Street Gang does dabble into most of these factors (including one great segment on The Count), but the fact of the matter is that most of these topics have already been extensively explored.

A still from Street Gang – How We Got To Sesame Street by Marilyn Agrelo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Luke Geissb├╝hler)

It’s the challenge that comes with making a documentary adaption on a book that not only released 13 years ago, but featured years and years of research within itself. Most of this material has already been documented and is available through the internet. Endless amounts of interviews with puppeteers and even wikis now run by fans. It does, to some degree, hold this film back. It might come off as repetition to experienced Muppet fans (albeit not many, but a strong bunch). Though Sesame Street isn’t at the same place it was years ago, making way for the film’s saving grace: Agrelo’s focus on the unsung.

The unsung being Sesame Street‘s role in educating low-income communities and the people who fought hard for this concept behind the scenes. Again, seeing where the program is today, this is a desperate reminder. Innovators like producer Joan Ganz Cooney and director/writer Jon Stone, both of whom boast decades upon decades leading the show, first molded a program where kids of color could learn from people who look just like them. The design of Sesame Street itself being the Bronx of the late ’60s, a predominantly Black community, is all but forgotten by the masses. The spotlight on the Black and Brown faces who would interact with the Muppets on-screen is incredibly welcome. The actors behind staple characters like Gordon, Luis, Maria and more, get their deserved time to shine. Sonia Manzano, in particualr, became one of the first Latinas on national television by playing Maria. These peoples’ shared legacy is enough to warrant a singular doc on its own.

A still from Street Gang – How We Got To Sesame Street by Marilyn Agrelo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

It’s nice to see their side of the story not get overshadowed by their Muppet companions. As a whole, the film isn’t distracted by the overwhelming legacy of Jim Henson. The Muppet mastermind behind most of Sesame Street‘s beloved stars, he was a key figure in the making of the show without a doubt, but his incredible career tends to be a show stealer. How can it not? The man is responsible for endless amounts of childhood joy. However, Agrelo seems to be aware of this and only gives him the spotlight when neccessary as there are so many others to acknowledge before the pacing becomes too tedious. Especially Jon Stone who was just as influential as Henson with his vision for public educational TV, but rarely got any credit in the media. Agrelo ultimately balances Street Gang with what people want to see versus what they need to see. And what people need to see right now more than ever, is that Sesame Street was always made to assist the households of the underprivileged and less fortunate first.

Seeing Big Bird partner up with DoorDash, a company notorious for exploiting people simply trying to make ends meet, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This coming after Sesame Street‘s move of first run episodes from PBS to HBO in 2016 is even dirtier. Some may say that this is the antithesis of what the show is all about. Understandable, but these kinds of decisions come from somewhere. In this case, Sesame Street almost going broke with funds in the mid 2010s. Things may seem off for the brand at the moment, but as Agrelo makes clear with Street Gang: there will always be good people willing to do the good deed. There will always be people willing to fight for the integrity behind educating low-income communities. It might be momentarily unclear, but by exploring the power of media literacy, Agrelo’s film sends a poignant message that is sure to inspire a stronger outlook for everybody on Sesame Street.

8/10


Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is slated to release on HBO and HBO Max in 2021.

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