Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“She (Joan Cooney, co-creator of “Sesame Street”) is doing what television would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people, and there’s all the difference in the world.”

Television in the ’60s and ’70s was overwhelmed by two things — war and advertising. Turn on the TV, and you’d see Vietnam, in all of its appalling violence and senseless carnage, the first American war those at home could truly see. Change the channel, and you’d see someone trying to sell you something. This is what children, in the midst of the most critical stage of their cognitive development, had to watch. 

That is, until 1969, when a group of writers, educators, activists and creatives invited the American public to take a stroll down Sesame Street, a place of tolerance, learning and colorful puppets who sang about the alphabet like it was the most important thing in the world.

Director Marilyn Agrelo’s (“Mad Hot Ballroom”) “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” one of Sundance 2021’s new documentary releases, provides viewers with a comprehensive and emotionally resonant look into how the hit children’s show “Sesame Street” came to be, through behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the key players. 

It all began with a dinner party among friends in 1966, when Joan Cooney and American psychologist Lloyd Morrisett came to the realization that television, which at the time was used to market products to kids and bombard them with meaningless, mind-numbing entertainment, could be used to enrich their lives instead. 

Cooney was appalled by how much time children spent watching TV programming that cared more about their parents’ money than it did about them. Even more importantly, she was upset by how TV’s ability to reach children was being wasted. As an interviewee observes in the film, “Television is a reality, to children maybe the reality.” 

How, then, should television be used? Their plan — grab children’s attention by utilizing all of the things that made TV at the time fun and engaging, like bright colors, catchy musical numbers and a strong sense of humor. And finally, once children are thoroughly engrossed, teach them something. With educators, activists and creative visionaries like Jon Stone and Jim Henson on set and in the writer’s room, “Sesame Street” came into existence, and the world hasn’t been the same since.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“Street Gang” examines the quietly revolutionary nature of “Sesame Street,” particularly in regard to its dedication to diversity and racial equity. Everyone is welcome on Sesame Street, unlike the real world outside of it. It is a multicultural, multiracial community, a model for how the world could be if kindness and love are the priorities. After all, the name of the show comes from the expression “open sesame,” which evokes openness, access and inclusivity. 

“Street Gang,” unlike its subject matter, is not groundbreaking or particularly innovative, and it’s probably longer than it needs to be. Of the two documentaries I’ve seen about the making of a popular American children’s show over the last few years, 2018’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” has to be my favorite. 

Nevertheless, the story it tells feels profoundly necessary, especially as the achievement gap, which refers to differences in educational outcomes among children, often drawn along racial and socioeconomic lines, continues to expand. 

After the events of last summer following the murder of George Floyd, the American public is more aware now than ever of the ways in which injustice, especially racial injustice, pervades every aspect of our lives, including our deeply flawed educational system. 

The problems “Sesame Street” sought to combat — like educational inequity and systemic racism — are still very present in society. In response to the Black Lives Matter protests about police brutality and racial injustice, “Sesame Street” released a phenomenal HBO Max special with the aim of teaching children about racism. In short, “Sesame Street” is anything but irrelevant, and “Street Gang” is a reminder of that. 

Simultaneously reminiscent and forward-looking, “Street Gang” is a much-needed reminder of how much “Sesame Street” has accomplished, as well as how much educational programming needs to accomplish to meet the demands of the modern world. Above all, the documentary reminds us of the power of interdisciplinary collaboration, especially when the collaborators are truly passionate about their work. 

Hardly anything truly magical is created in isolation, and “Sesame Street” is no exception. It’s the community of people behind the scenes that made a community of learners and “Sesame Street” lovers — one I consider myself part of — possible. 

As one interviewee reflected, “It was a family. It is a family. And, really, all of us loved each other. And it shows in the work.”

Managing Arts Editor Elise Godfryd can be reached at elgo@umich.edu.