A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a delightful documentary about the creation, evolution, and legacy of the classic children's TV show. It's an inspiring story about a handful of people who had a vision to provide educational equity for underserved communities, rallying lawmakers, politicians, creatives, child psychologists, celebrities, and networks to make it happen. It offers insight into how the team's commitment to having a diverse cast may have contributed to more inclusive perspectives in the United States. Kids and teens who love the show might be disappointed that there's not much here from more recent iterations of Sesame Street: Most of the origin story and action takes place in the 1960s through the '80s (Elmo doesn't even make an appearance). The film's peek behind the curtain includes hearing Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird using mild curse words ("hell," "damn") and joking about sex in silly, off-the-cuff moments. And Jim Henson's early Muppets are comically violent in a series of commercials -- they're blown up, branded, and run over by a stagecoach (though usually shown as fine afterward). Footage from the '60s shows people smoking, as was accurate of the era, and at one point, a Muppet seems to take a swig of alcohol.
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What's the story?
STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET recounts how the Children's Television Workshop began as an idea by behavioral researcher Lloyd Morriset Jr. and TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney. They wanted to turn the hours children spent watching TV into a positive, productive use of time. Believing the medium could be used as a way to educate children and help them understand the world around them, Cooney assembled a team of creative executives who made history -- and made a difference.
Is it any good?
This is a perfectly executed documentary. No matter what street you grew up on, if you were born in the United States in the '60s or later, chances are you grew up on Sesame Street. And, as Marilyn Agrelo's film helps make clear, you -- and the country -- got a lot more out of it than just learning the alphabet. Cooney was a TV producer who realized that kids were consuming vast quantities of television in the medium's early and unregulated days: around half of their waking hours. And she knew it was mostly opportunistic programming that was looking to make a buck, not interested in children's well-being. She saw the opportunity to use children's interest in TV to educate them. What started as the hope of giving kids from underserved communities an equal shot at getting an educational foundation became a platform that transformed the way countless kids would see differences in race, gender, age, and ability.
Sesame Street's disparate group of TV producers, puppeteers, musicians, child psychologists, and scriptwriters were each individually good at what they did -- but together, they were pure genius. All of the interviewees in Street Gang show great humility and seem somewhat in awe of one another's abilities. For anyone watching, especially teens, this docu will likely create a hopefulness about what they, too, might accomplish in the world. Viewers will take away the importance of perseverance, of pursuing purpose-driven work, and that your "work family" can deliver a great deal of personal fulfillment. At the same time, the movie doesn't shy away from telling the truth, including the fact that many of the show's male creatives spent more time making children's entertainment than they did with their own children. In less than two hours, there are plenty of takeaways, but the resounding message is the same as Sesame Street: Everyone can be socially valuable. And, just like the show, you -- and your kids -- will be better for watching.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Sesame Street's lasting impact on children. What impact do you think it has had on today's world, both in the United States and across the globe?
Why is it important to show diversity within a community? Why is positive representation in the media important? What happens when a child rarely sees someone like them in the media -- or, as often happens, sees someone like them portrayed as a villain or "less than"?
How does entertainment influence society -- specifically, developing minds? How does TV programming for kids in the 1960s resemble entertainment platforms today, like YouTube, TikTok, digital programming, and video games? How is it different?
How do the people who made Sesame Street demonstrate perseverance, humility, and integrity? Why are those important character strengths? How was Sesame Street a true collaboration from conception to execution?
Why do you think kids learn more when they watch educational media with parents? How has co-viewing been decreasing as entertainment platforms become more fragmented and segmented? What impact might that have?
- In theaters: April 23, 2021
- On DVD or streaming: May 7, 2021
- Cast: Joan Ganz Cooney, Sonia Manzano, Caroll Spinney
- Director: Marilyn Agrelo
- Studio: Screen Media
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Activism, Great Boy Role Models, Great Girl Role Models, History, Puppets
- Character strengths: Communication, Curiosity, Empathy, Integrity, Teamwork
- Run time: 107 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: some thematic elements, language and smoking
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: April 29, 2021
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