The Depressing Times Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Marilyn Agrelo’s Street Gang, a pretty straightforward documentary about the founding and first two decades of the American cultural institution Sesame Street, has many moments of pure magic, such as Jesse Jackson preaching black power to a bunch of kids (“I am, somebody”). It’s like he is trying to liberate children from the oppression of grownups. When the kid power sermon aired, in 1972, the show was still very new (Sesame Street was born ten months after I was born in 1969), still on its learning legs. The documentary shows how the idea of a kids show that appropriated the techniques of advertising came into existence. We learn about this person, that person, these people who put it all together in the late ’60s.
But the documentary fails to really examine the social situation of Sesame Street. Yes, a talented team of white do-gooders did something whose originality cannot be denied. But the show was aimed at urban black kids raised on television because their parents worked too much or were tied up in the legal system. The question that the documentary fails to ask and attempt to answer, then, is why a show of this kind was even needed in the richest country in the world?
Why were black American children stuck with what Melle Mell called a “bum education”? Why were black and brown urban places so broken, so neglected, so poor? None of this is explored or considered. Nor is enough said about the setting of the show—a black ghetto transformed into a bizarre or unreal multicultural inner-city neighborhood.
Instead the doc gives a brief background (“society was polarized”—yes, where have you heard that before) and then jumps right on in to the do-good mission: provide children neglected by their government a way to learn their ABCs. The White House can’t do it. Congress can’t do it. Public education can’t do it. So, we must do it. We (the white professional TV people, puppeteers, and child psychologists) will make a big difference with, of all things, the boob tube. How can any of this be seen but in the light of a social catastrophe. And only a moment or two of reflection is required to see that it’s nothing but crazy to believe a TV show could solve these real social problems. But it seems, under the conditions of imposed economic scarcity, there was nothing else that could be done at the time. How depressing.
I also think this is why the documentary’s tone is not hopeful but depressing. It’s about a society that failed so badly that it resorted to the ratings game to put the mirage of a properly funded classroom into the homes of the urban poor. Eventually the show would be exported around the world—a development described by the 2006 doc The World According to Sesame Street. This planetary expansion is rather spooky when one corresponds the rise of Sesame Street (early 1970s), with that of neoliberal globalization (early 1970s). However, I will leave these darkest of considerations for another time.
In the end, Sesame Street made some puppeteers with a dark sense of humor famous, and a director, who seemed suicidal, win some Emmy Awards. This is why the best moment in the documentary concerns the episode of Big Bird dealing with the real death of Mr. Hopper. (The scene has the same TV history status as Florida Evans’ “Damn, Damn, Damn.”)
There was no real reason to go bring up death in the show. Black children most likely knew more about death than many of the show’s creators. But when you are trying to provide an education not by increasing the budget of the education system, and increasing the wages of women and men raising black and brown children, but a television program, then that feeling of death will always be nearby.
You can watch the second screening of Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street on Monday, February 01, 2021.
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