Review: 'Street Gang' looks at the ways 'Sesame Street' taught the youth

Documentary honors the revolutionary children's television program

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's a show for children that didn't talk down to its audience, and taught them important lessons on race, tolerance and matters of life and death, while also teaching them their ABCs and how to count. 

"Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street" is an enlightening look at the genesis of "Sesame Street" through the eyes of its creative team, who had a visionary idea to make a television show that would love people rather than market to them. The result speaks for itself, and is still an institution more than 50 years after it hit the airwaves. 

Oscar the Grouch and Frank Oz in "Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street."

Marilyn Agrelo directs this unabashed love letter to "Sesame Street" and its inhabitants, based on the 2008 book by Michael Davis. Through interviews both new and archival, "Sesame Street's" founders explain how the show was started, the coming together of the talent involved and the magic that has made the show endure for generations. 

For those who grew up watching the show and took it at face value, it may come as a surprise how much was going on beneath the surface. Producers explain how the show was specifically targeted to reach inner-city youth, and how the set was modeled after a Harlem street corner. The racially integrated cast was a subliminal message in racial equality. And the real-life death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper on the show, presented a challenge to producers: how best to address the loss to the audience? They wound up doing it through Big Bird, who processed the news like a child would, but the straightforwardness with which the show handled the issue was something of a breakthrough for children's television programming. 

"Street Gang" is a warm and often fascinating look at a group of bold visionaries who focused their talents on teaching — and entertaining — the youth. It would take a real Oscar the Grouch to deny its appeal, but then "Sesame Street" taught us that grouches are okay, too. 

'Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street'


Rated PG: for some thematic elements, language and smoking

Running time: 106 minutes

In theaters