Culture Representation: This biographical documentary film of activist/poet Nikki Giovanni features her first-person perspective, as well as commentary from African Americans and white people who are connected to her in some way.
Culture Clash: Giovanni, an outspoken critic of white supremacist racism, discusses overcoming an abusive background, family conflicts and resistance to her activism.
Culture Audience: “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about unusual political activists.
“Going to Mars: The Nikki: Giovanni Project” is a journey into a unique life and perspective that might not be for everyone, but it stands firm in its authenticity. This documentary about poet/activist Nikki Giovanni is bold and somewhat unconventional, just like Giovanni. The movie evokes outer space travel as an apt metaphor for how ideas and influences can transcend boundaries.
Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary. The movie is told almost entirely from the perspective of Giovanni, with narration of some of her poems by actress Taraji P. Henson. The movie has the expected mix of archival footage and interviews conducted exclusively for the documnetary. However, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” has added elements of atmospheric scenes of outer space, since Giovanni talks a lot about space travel and Mars.
The movie opens with a quote from Giovanni, “The trip to Mars can only be understood through black Americans.” If that sentence intrigues you, then this documentary might be your type of movie. Giovanni says in the documentary’s opening remark: “I don’t remember a lot of things, but a lot of things I don’t remember, I don’t choose to remember. I remember what’s important, and I make up the rest. That’s what storytelling is all about.”
In another voiceover, Nikki says: “I’m a big fan of black women, because in our blood is space travel, because we come from a known through an unknown. And that’s all that space travel is. If anybody can find what’s out there in the darkness, it’s black women.”
During a public Q&A with journalist/writer Touré, to promote her 2017 nonfiction book “A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter,” she comments on the enslaved black female slaves who were kidnapped in Africa and forced to live an enslaved life in the United States, where they were often raped by their white enslavers: “Being forced to have sex with aliens, whatever they put in us, we held it, and then we birthed it, and then we named it, and then we loved it. Why wouldn’t we do that on Mars?”
Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni on June 7, 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee, but spent much of her childhood living in Ohio. Sometime in her childhood, she was given the nickname Nikki. Her parents Yolande Cornelia Sr. and Jones “Gus” Giovanni (who were sweethearts at Knoxville College) worked in public schools. Nikki graduated from Fisk University in Nashville in 1967. She has been a professor of writing and literature at Virginia Tech since 1987.
Nikki first came to national prominence as part of the Black Power movement that rose in the late 1960s. The documentary includes many archival clips of her appearances on TV shows, including “Soul!,” where she was a frequent guest. “Going to Mars” has has footage of several of Nikki’s speaking appearances, including at the 2016 Afropunk festival.
She also gets candid about her parents’ volatile marriage and says that her father often beat up her mother. Nikki says in a voiceover: “It was a stormy relationship at various points, but we know that deprivation gives us stormy relationships.” Later, she is shown saying during a WHYY radio interview about how she felt about her abusive father at the time she lived with him: “It was clear I was going to have to kill him, or else I’d have to move.”
Nikki’s complicated emotions about race and gender includes admitting to her prejudices. In a “Soul!” interview she did in 1971 with writer/poet James Baldwin, when she was at the height of her Black Power fame, she confessed that her biases were affecting her personal life: “I don’t like white people, and I’m afraid of black men. What do you do? That’s a cycle. And that’s unfortunate, because I need love.”
Nikki found love with her wife Virginia Fowler, who recruited Nikki to work at Virginia Tech. The two women are both cancer survivors: Nikki battled lung cancer in the 1990s. Fowler is recovering from lung cancer and breast cancer. Fowler talks a little bit about her cancer journey, but Nikki doesn’t really discuss her own cancer experiences in the documentary.
Nikki’s selective memory is also shown when someone named Tom calls her to ask Nikki to discuss her time at an unnamed magazine, but she declines to be interviewed. Nikki says it’s because she had a seizure and “doesn’t remember much.” She also chooses not to go into details about the relationship that resulted in the birth of her only child Thomas Govanni, who was born in 1969, and she raised him as a single mother.
Nikki doesn’t talk about the turbulent relationship that she’s had with Thomas, but Fowler comments that Nikki and Thomas were estranged for a number of years and have since reconciled. Thomas and his daughter Kai Giovanni appear briefly in the documentary, which shows Kai going to Nikki’s house for the first time.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of this documentary is that the most candid comments from Nikki are not things she said in exclusive interviews for the documentary but things she talked about in archival clips. Much credit should be given to the documentary’s research and editing teams for including a lot of this rarely seen footage. There’s an archival audio clip where Nikki is says, “I think I’ll run away with the ants and live on Mars.”
Most of the documentary’s original footage of Nikki consists of her at her home (such a scene of her doing some gardening), hanging out with friends such as performer Novella Nelson, or making public speaking appearances. The most vulnerable that Nikki gets in the documentary is toward the end, when she copes with the grief over the death of her beloved aunt Agnes, who passed away at age 94. The documentary shows Nikki getting the news of the death and later speaking at Agnes’ funeral. Nikki comments during a moment that she is now the oldest living person in her family.
Nikki’s outlook on life can be summed up in two of her speaking appearances that are featured in the documentary. In a Q&A at the Apollo Theater with educator/actress Johnetta Cole, Nikki says: “I honestly think the most important word for me is ‘duty.’ … Our people have a great history, and it’s our duty to tell that story.” At another speaking appearance at a library in front of children, Nikki (who has written several children’s books) says: “I’m very fortunate that I just don’t care what people think about me.”
HBO released “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. HBO and Max will premiere the movie in 2024, on a date to be announced.
Culture Representation: The documentary film “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” features a group of white and black people (with one Latino) discussing the life and career of model Donyale Luna, who broke barriers for black female models in the fashion industry.
Culture Clash: After being bullied through her teenage years in her hometown of Detroit, because of her unusual physical appearance, Luna reinvented herself and quickly became an international supermodel, but she experienced career-damaging racism and had ongoing personal problems, such drug abuse, mental health issues, and a career that burned out almost as quickly as it lit up.
Culture Audience: “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographies of unusual and underrated celebrities; the fashion industry in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s; and people who broke racial barriers in their industries.
When people think of the first black woman to be on the cover of Vogue, they might think that supermodel Beverly Johnson holds that distinction. Johnson was actually the first black woman to be on the cover of American Vogue, in 1974. The first black woman to be on the cover of any Vogue was Donyale Luna, who achieved this milestone by gracing the cover of British Vogue, in 1966. Luna (whose first name was pronounced “dawn-yell”) was also the first black woman to be on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, in 1965, but as an illustration, not in a photograph.
If you’ve never heard of Luna, you’re not alone. The documentary “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” shines a deserving spotlight on this often-overlooked model, who died of a heroin overdose in 1979, at the age of 33. Johnson, whose modeling career benefited from Luna’s racial breakthroughs, is interviewed in the documentary. Johnson admits that early on in Johnson’s career, she had never heard of Luna.
Directed by Nailah Jefferson, “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 American Black Film Festival) follows a traditional celebrity documentary format of having a mixture of archival footage and interviews that are exclusive to the documentary. However, Luna is such an unusual subject, and there’s such a great variety of people who are interviewed, the movie doesn’t ever feel too formulaic. It’s a riveting and well-rounded biography about a trailblazing model who never became a household name but whose impact and influence resonate for generations after her untimely passing. This documentary also explores generational trauma and pop culture.
“Donyale Luna” is artfully told in five chapters named after the cities that each defined a certain era in Luna’s life. Chapter One begins in Detroit, followed by Chapter Two in New York City, Chapter Three in London, Chapter Four in Paris, and Chapter Five in Rome. Detroit is where Peggy Ann Freeman (Luna’s real name) was born in August 31, 1945, as the middle of three sisters. She lived in Detroit through her teenage years. Her favorite movie was “West Side Sory.” Much of her childhood was scarred by bullying that she got from her some of peers because she was very tall (reportedly growing to 6’2″), slender and had big eyes. She was often called “ugly” by people who thought she didn’t fit their standard of beauty.
Adding to her unhappiness, her strict parents had a volatile on-again/off-again marriage that ended in a tragedy that won’t be described in this review, so as not reveal too much information that’s in the documentary. There’s a lot about Luna in the documentary that viewers will be finding out for the first time. There are some people interviewed in the documentary who break down in tears when talking about her, so viewers should not be surprised if they get emotional too when they watch this documentary.
Several of Luna’s family members are interviewed, including Luna’s younger sister, Lillian Washington, who says that her parents had a “history of domestic violence.” Her father Nathaniel Freeman (a longtime Ford Motor Company employee) physically abused their mother Peggy Freeman (a longtime YWCA employee), according Luna’s Detroit childhood friend Omar K. Boone, who’s interviewed in the documentary. Boone also says that when he knew Luna in her teen years, she was “unsophisticated” but a “quick learner.”
Washington and many others in “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” describe Luna as having an other-worldly beauty that would make people stop what they were doing and stare at her if she was in their presence. People who knew her best also describe her inner beauty of radiating kindness and love. However, Luna also had lifelong insecurities about the way she looked and about being accepted by other people. Several people in the documentary say that Luna habitually made up stories about herself and sought to escape in fantasy worlds that she fabricated.
The combination of these insecurities and the bullying she got as a child led her to invent the Donyale Luna persona for herself when she was a teenager. She started speaking in a European accent and pretended to be multiracial, even though she and her parents were African American. The documentary’s archival footage of her from the late 1960s shows that Luna wore piercing blue contact lenses that didn’t look like human eyes. It’s mentioned that Luna’s father disapproved of this invented persona because he felt that she was denying her African American heritage.
Washington says of Luna’s childhood and teenage years: “All the black guys thought she was crazy. They called her ‘skinny’ and ‘bony.’ They called her Olive Oyl. They hurt her to her core. I think that encouraged her to create her own persona.” Josephine Armstrong, Luna’s older sister, confirms about Luna: “She would pretend and tell stories.”
Luna’s life would change when she was discovered in Detroit by photographer David McCabe, who urged her to go to New York City (where he was based) to become a fashion model. McCabe, who is one of the people interviewed in the documentary, believes that Luna lied about her racial identity (at various times, she claimed that she was part-white, part-Latino, part Asian and/or part-Native American) because she probably felt that if people knew she was fully African American, she would experience more racism. It’s also mentioned in the documentary that Luna often talked about wishing that she had blonde hair and blue eyes.
Armed with her invented persona, Luna took McCabe’s advice and moved to New York City, in 1964. Within a few months of living in New York City, Luna was featured in the pages of major fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar. She also began hobnobbing with artsy and avant-garde types. For example, McCabe says that he introduced Luna to Andy Warhol. Luna is described as someone who kept in touch with family members but also publicly denied or lied about many things about her family. The documentary mentions that she showed no interest in going back to the United States to visit her biological family after she moved to Europe.
Luna soon branched out into acting in some films, mostly supporting roles in middling movies, such as 1966’s “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” and 1969’s “Fellini Satyricon.” Her filmography as an actress was not extensive. According to the Internet Movie Database, Luna had credited roles as an actress in only five feature films from 1965 to 1972, with 1972’s “Salome” being the only movie where she had a starring role. She appeared as herself in several other movies.
Although she was in the public eye, Luna kept many things about herself very private and was able to fool a lot of people with her lies about her background. “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” does not mention that while she was living in New York in the mid-1960s, she was married for less than a year to an unknown actor. Very little is known about this 10-month marriage except that it ended in divorce, and Luna refused to publicly talk about this ex-husband. It says a lot about the times that she lived in, long before the Internet existed, that she was able to keep up her charade of pretending to be an exotic, multiracial European and hide many facts about her personal life.
One of her closest friends during this time was David Croland, an artist who freely admits that heavy drug use was part of their friendship and lifestyles. In the documentary, Croland says that he and Luna would regularly use marijuana, hashish and LSD. Other people in the documentary also talk about Luna’s drug abuse, which they believe was part of her need to mentally escape from her problems and try to avoid her insecurities. Family members and friends say that Luna often used drugs but was never addicted. However, it’s hard to know if that’s true, or if it’s denial from loved ones who don’t want to publicly admit that Luna could have been a drug addict.
Even with her very quick success in the fashion industry, Luna still experienced many racial barries as a black model in the mid-1960s. It was one thing to be in some fashion spreads. It was another thing to get on the cover of major magazines or get lucrative endorsement deals, which at the time were still privileges given only to white models. The documentary mentions that Luna eventually became disillusioned with the racism she experienced in the United States. The U.S. civil rights movement was going on at the same time, but she didn’t get involved in this movement or any political activism.
Luna’s career skyrocketed after she moved to London in December 1965. She would later live in Paris and then Rome. She was living in an isolated part of Italy and was in semi-retirement at the time of her death. During her years in London, she continued to hang out with the rich and famous and dated some celebrities, including Rolling Stones lead guitarist Brian Jones and actor Klaus Kinski. Luna can be seen as an assistant to a fire eater in the music variety film “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” which was filmed in 1968, but wasn’t released until 1996.
Two very famous photographers are mentioned in the documentary as having the most influence on Luna’s supermodel career: Richard Avedon (an American who died in 2004, at the age of 81) and David Bailey, a Brit who is interviewed in the documentary. Bailey says that he was vaguely aware of racism in the fashion industry, but he claims that he wasn’t one of the racists. Bailey comments about Luna: “I didn’t think about her being black. She was just someone who was beautiful.”
The general consensus is that Luna found greater acceptance in Europe than she did in the United States. However, that doesn’t mean that she never stopped experiencing racism. The documentary includes a heartbreaking account of racist decisions made by Diana Vreeland (American Vogue’s editor-in-chief from 1963 to 1971) that blocked Luna from getting major career opportunities. In the documentary, former supermodel Johnson begins to cry when she hears the details. “It’s an accumulation of all the pain,” Johnson says of her crying over the racism that she, Luna and many other black people have experienced.
Other emotionally touching segments in the documentary have to do with Luna’s only child: a daughter named Dream Cazzaniga, who was only 18 months old when Luna died. Cazzaniga, who was raised by her father’s parents in Italy, reads many of Luna’s journal entries in the documentary. Luna was a talented illustrator, and the documenatry includes some of her art. Cazzaniga also candidly shares her thoughts on her memories of her mother and how she felt growing up without her mother, whose death is a “taboo” subject for the Cazzaniga family.
Because “luna” means “moon” in Spanish and in Italian, Luna often told people she had a special connection to the moon. Near the beginning of the documentary, Cazzaniga can be heard in a voiceover saying, “Growing up in Italy, I remember seeing the moon. My nanny was telling me, ‘Oh, look, that’s your mom looking from the sky.’ I never doubted that whenever I was looking at the moon, I thought that was my blessing from her.”
Later in the documentary, Dream’s Italian father Luigi Cazzaniga, who was a photographer when he married Luna in 1976, is shown being interviewed and going with Dream to visit a few of the places where he and Luna made their lives in Italy. He describes Luna as someone who loved being a mother but she was feeling increasingly unhappy with living in a remote area where she had little or no contact with her friends she used to know as a model. Luigi’s family members, whom Dream describes as conservative and religious Catholics, rejected Luna and wouldn’t allow her inside their homes. Luigi had to frequently travel because of his photographer job, so Luna was often left home alone with Dream.
Former supermodel Pat Cleveland, whose career blossomed in the 1970s around the same time as Johnson’s career, tells a harrowing story in the documentary about how Luna seemed to be mentally unraveling over all the lies and the fake persona that Luna created for herself. Cleveland describes Luna as someone who was desperately lonely and literally begging for help in the last year of Luna’s life, when Luna confessed to Cleveland that she was really an American from Detroit. Cleveland says she felt powerles to help someone whom she didn’t know every well and who was already on a downward spiral. It’s not said out loud, but it’s implied that Luna was not getting any therapy or other professional help for her mental health issues when she was living in Italy.
Several people interviewed in the documentary give cultural and historical context to why Luna’s accomplishments in the fashion industry also came with racial burdens that might have been heavier in her lifetime but still exist for many people today. Constance White, an author and former editor-in-chief of Essence, comments on white Euro-centric standards of beauty that dominate in Western culture: “It’s something that Black women have a singular experience with.” White adds that these beauty standards often have this direct or indirect message for Black women: “Everything about you is wrong.”
Other interviewees in the documentary include fashion designer/activist Aurora James, Vogue editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, Duke University art history professor Dr. Richard J. Powell, talent agent Kyle Hagler, Richard Avedon’s former assistant Gideon Lewin and fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. Three of Luna’s close friends interviewed in the documentary are Sanders Bryant, a pal who knew her from high school; actor Juan Fernandez; who describes his relationship with Luna as being like a sibling relationship; and artist Livia Liverani, who says that Luna was frequently misunderstood.
“Donyale Luna: Supermodel” is certainly not the first documentary to be about someone who had troubles coping with fame and who eventually faded into near-obscurity. However, this documentary makes a clear case for people to learn more about Luna’s legacy—not just as a model in the fashion industry but also as a loved one who changed the lives of the people who were closest to her. Fame and money can be fleeting. The areas where Luna made the most impact cannot be measured by magazine covers or monetary amounts.
HBO premiered “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” on September 13, 2023.
Culture Representation: The documentary “BS High”—about a corruption scandal involving a football team for the illegitimate school Bishop Sycamore High School in Columbus, Ohio—interviews a mix of African Americans and white people representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Roy Johnson took money and young athletes’ dreams to start a U.S. football team affiliated with fabricated high schools.
Culture Audience: “BS High” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in U.S. football and sports scandals.
“BS High” is a heartbreaking and cautionary tale about con artists taking advantage of young athletes’ hopes and dreams. This documentary is also a helpful guide to see how pathological liars operate and how not to get fooled. “BS High” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.
Directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, “BS High” is an unflinching portrait of a self-admitted con man and several of the victims whose lives were damaged by his lies and scams. The chief villain of the story is Roy Johnson, but he was enabled and helped by other people—most of whom are not interviewed in the documentary, for reasons that aren’t really explained in the documentary. Johnson was considered the mastermind of the schemes he was involved with, and he is interviewed in “BS High.” The interviews with Johnson took place in Los Angeles in 2022.
The documentary confirms that Johnson (who was born in 1980), by his own admission, has a problem with consistently telling the truth, he’s very insecure, and he has serious anger issues. “Anger is a blanket emotion,” Johnson says early on in “BS High,” where he is seen asking some of the documentary’s crew members what kind of body language he should have during his on-camera interviews. “Do I look like a con man?” he asks with a smirk.
“BS High” begins with archival footage of the event that marked the beginning of the scrutiny that led to the downfall of Johnson’s biggest scam. On August 29, 2021, ESPN did a live telecast of a high school football game between the well-known IMG Academy and and the obscure Bishop Sycamore High School at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. It was one of the most embarrassing football game defeats ever shown on TV. The final score was 58-0, with IMG winning against a team that fumbled and stumbled its way to a resounding loss.
This TV exposure of Bishop Sycamore High School (based in Columbus, Ohio) and the incompetence of its football team led many people to look into what this high school was all about and how they got these football players, many of whom looked a lot older than high-school age. And what was discovered was one of the biggest U.S. football scandals of all time: Bishop Sycamore High School did not exist as an accredited school and did not have academic courses. It was actually the name of a sketchy recruitment program led by Johnson.
“BS High” obviously has a double meaning that is pointed out in the documentary. BS can stand for Bishop Sycamore, and it can stand for “bullshit.” The latter is what Johnson has been accused of serving up for many years by many people. He is still embroiled in lawsuits for fraud and unpaid bills. In “BS High,” Johnson dismisses the dishonest way that his football team ended up on ESPN. He says all that matters was that the team made it that far to be in a game that was televised on ESPN.
This “all publicity is good publicity” attitude seems to fuel a lot of Johnson’s motivation to participate in this documentary, as he brags about how far he took his schemes, with little or no regard for the people he hurt along the way. Johnson acts as if it’s an accomplishment that he’s now the subject of a documentary because of all his troubling actions. But instead of Johnson coming across as a movie star, he comes across as someone desperately trying to spin his story and create more smoke and mirrors for his already ruined reputation.
Journalist/author Andrew King says in “BS High” that he isn’t surprised that Johnson agreed to be interviewed for the documentary: “He could be the next in a long line of people who falls on his own sword because he talks to much in a documentary.” Not only does Johnson talk a lot, he also heinously laughs when he thinks about his scams and how many people he fooled. And, at times, he gets angry and blames his victims for being “stupid.”
“BS High” gives some background info, most of it told by Johnson, to give context for how he turned out the way that he did. Johnson says that as a child, he was obsessed with the action TV series “The A-Team” and identified the most with Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of the team, played by actor George Peppard. “I literally thought I was Hannibal,” Johnson comments. The Hannibal character in “The A-Team” was a military commander, a strategist, a master of disguises and an amateur actor. Hannibal’s signature line was “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Like many con artists, Johnson failed in a career where he targeted people as victims. By his own admission, Johnson says that he was a failed athlete. Johnson says that he got an internship with the New England Patriots, which influenced him to want to become a general manager in professional football. Around the same time, Johnson says he was “mentoring” his younger brother, who accomplished something that Johnson could not accomplish: He got a football scholarship.
Johnson says in the documentary that his “mentoring” of his younger brother led to his interest in helping other young football players. “For me,” Johnson says of this brotherly “mentorship” experience, “it was an opportunity to take it from helping my brother and a few people to an entire school.” It’s doubtful that anyone in Johnson’s family is looking up to him now. None of his family members is interviewed in this documentary.
Eventually, Johnson teamed up with John Barnham Sr. to co-found Christians of Faith Academy, a non-profit group aimed at helping underprivileged youth, most of whom are African American. Even though the word “academy” was in its title, Christians of Faith Academy was never an accredited school and didn’t have any academic courses. Instead, it was essentially a recruitment program for teenage football players, with Johnson as the head “coach.”
Many of these children and their parents willingly went along because they thought this program was legitimate and because Johnson filled their heads with big promises that he could turn their sons into college students with football scholarships who could then become National Football League (NFL) recruits. The Christians of Faith Academy, for a while, was funded by money that was flowing in from donations and sponsors that Johnson takes most of the credit for getting, even though he had no previous experience in managing an athletics program for high schoolers. Johnson has never had the required permit to coach high school football.
“BS High” co-directors Free and Roe are heard off-camera occasionally asking Johnson some interview questions or responding to some of the things he says. At one point, Barnham’s name is mentioned to Johnson, who acts like he doesn’t remember who Barnham is. Eventually, Johnson admits that Barnham was his partner in Christians of Faith Academy, but Johnson insists that Barnham wasn’t as involved as Johnson was in managing the academy. Barnham does not say much in the documentary, but Barnham says that he’s not surprised that Johnson pretended not to remember Barnham.
Johnson freely admits to having a “fake it ’til you make it” attitude. He says of his philosophy to get money out of people: “Do what the people who have money do, even if you don’t have the money.” Johnson also admits that he is “insecure” and “very resourceful.” He adds, “And that’s a very bad combination.”
And what that “bad combination” led to was Johnson overspending and not paying hefty bills. Johnson shrugs off his debts (the documentary estimates that he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to untold numbers of people, some of whom are suing him) as if it’s just his way of doing business. Johnson and other people in the documentary say that his attitude has always been that he needs to spend money in order to make money.
As a religious non-profit group, the Christians of Faith Academy was allowed to get certain tax breaks. What the Christians of Faith Academy was not allowed to do was misrepresent itself as a school for academics when soliciting donations and other funds. The downfall of the Christians of Faith Academy began when the African Methodist Episcopal Church withdrew its support after reports began surfacing that the Christians of Faith Academy was not a legitimate school and funds were being mishandled.
In “BS High,” Johnson makes an “X-Men” reference when he talks about how he tried to prevent the Christians of Faith Academy from being shut down: “I’m Magneto. These are my mutants, and I’m fighting for them.” In Marvel’s “X-Men” comic books and movies, the main characters are mutants. Magneto is a mutant villain. After Christians of Faith Academy went out of business, Johnson founded Bishop Sycamore High School.
Ben Ferree, a civil rights investigator who used to work for the Ohio Athletic Association Foundation, was one of the first people to do an in-depth investigation into Johnson’s shady business dealings. Ferree says that the Christians of Faith Academy and Bishop Sycamore High School were the same scams under different names. Bishop Sycamore High School was also registered as a religious non-profit group.
Many of Johnson’s athlete victims dropped out of real high schools in order to get “training” at Bishop Sycamore High School. And in some cases, the documentary alleges that certain Bishop Sycamore High School “students” were actually over the age of 19, which is the cutoff age to play in league-sanctioned high school football. IMG Academy (which is based in Bradenton, Florida) is a famous training institution for high schoolers to be recruited into National Collegiate Athletics Association football. Bishop Sycamore High School was marketed as being like an IMG Academy for Ohio.
More powerful than any of Johnson’s statements in the documentary are the interviews and testimonies from the football players who got pulled into Johnson’s schemes. Trilian Harris, Adrian Brown Jr., Justin Daniel, ZyShawn Johnson (no relation to Roy Johnson), Isaiah Miller, Mecose Todd, Kymetrius Gates and Quincy Talmadge all talk about what it was like to be fooled by Roy Johnson, who dangled promises of making them star football players who could be recruited for football scholarships by top-tier football universities, which would then pave the way to fame and fortune in the NFL.
All of these victims describe Roy Johnson as being very charismatic but also having a cruel side that took pleasure in verbally and physically abusing them. Roy Johnson admits to having a history of violence, including beating up homeless men. The documentary also mentions Roy Johnson being arrested in 2020, for physically assaulting his girlfriend at the time. The outcome of that domestic violence case is mentioned in the documentary.
At first, Roy Johnson’s football victims were dazzled by what seemed to be Johnson’s successful image. But over time, they saw many things that were wrong and inappropriate about the “training” and road trips they would take. It’s alleged in the documentary that money became so scarce, Johnson ordered his young athletes to steal food for them to eat. They also witnessed Johnson commit violence against them and other people.
More than any money that could have been defrauded is the incalculable emotional cost and the sense of betrayal that the victims feel. Some of his victims, such as Harris, describe having some form of post-traumatic stress disorder because of what they experienced during their time “training” with Roy Johnson. Daniel breaks down and sobs when he describes how being involved in Bishop Sycamore High School ruined his chances of getting into a good college. Harris was admitted into Grambling State University, but he had his admission revoked when the school found out that he was affiliated with Bishop Sycamore High School.
And where were the parents during all this scamming? Only two parents are interviewed in the documentary: Harris’ mother Kristi Ferguson and Talmadge’s mother Erica Cain. They both echo what their sons say about being fooled by Roy Johnson’s smooth-talking ways. Both mothers also say that because of their financial struggles raising their sons as single mothers, they were grateful at the time that someone was taking an interest in training their sons to get football scholarships.
Other people interviewed in the documentary include journalist Bomani Jones; videographers Mike Moline and Anthony Marino, who were briefly hired by Roy Johnson during his Christians of Faith Academy days; and Dave Pando, the owner of a paintball business that says Roy Johnson still owes $800 on an unpaid bill. When Roy Johnson is asked about this unpaid paintball bill, he laughs and says he doesn’t remember anything about this debt, but if it exists, he says it’s chump change to him.
Roy Johnson has a nonchalant, cold or angry victim-blaming reaction when he’s asked how he feels about what he did to his victims, especially those whose young lives he altered in very damaging ways. During one comment, Roy Johnson shrugs and says, “Life happens.” During another comment, he says of his long history of deception: “I’m a con man-ish.” In another comment, Johnson says with no irony whatsoever, “I’m the most honest liar I know.”
But a moment comes when Roy Johnson’s cocky façade comes off, and he looks shaken to the core. During an interview, Harris calls Roy Johnson “evil” for what Roy Johnson did to his victims. Roy Johnson and Barnham, sitting next to each other, are shown this comment on a laptop computer. Barnham says nothing, but guilt and remorse are shown all over his face. Roy Johnson angrily gets up and storms out of the interview and says that it’s all a set-up to make him look bad. Later, Roy Johnson comes back to resume the interview, and he tries to look like he’s the victim.
Some people might have criticisms about “BS High” giving Roy Johnson the publicity he obviously craves. However, anyone who watches the entire documentary will see that “BS High” does not make Roy Johnson look glamorous or make him look like an anti-hero. It does the opposite: It exposes his duplicitous personality and shows how cowardly he can be when he’s confronted with the damage that his misdeeds have done.
Many viewers watching “BS High” will be infuriated by how certain people featured in this documentary got away with certain injustices for as long as they did. “BS High” could have done more to explain why certain enablers aren’t in the documentary or what comment, if any, they had if they were contacted by the “BS High” filmmakers. However, “BS High” is an urgent wake-up call to look at the bigger picture of a system that allowed this abuse and fraud to thrive in the first place and what should be done to prevent this abuse and fraud in the future.
Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 2016 in New York City, the documentary film “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) who are connected in some way to drag performer Taylor Mac and his one-time-only, 24-hour performance of pop hits.
Culture Clash: During his performance, Mac discusses some of the racism and homophobia behind some of history’s most popular songs.
Culture Audience: “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will appeal primarily to viewers who are fans of drag performers and music documentaries that focus on unconventional artists and unusual performances.
Vivacious and engaging, this concert documentary starring drag performer Taylor Mac offers a bittersweet presentation of iconic pop songs, without glossing over some of these songs’ problematic histories. It’s an extremely unique 24-hour performance. The 2016 show took place as a one-time-only event, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. During this 24-hour continuous performance, Mac performed popular songs from 24 decades (each decade got its own hour), from 1776 to 2016. Attendees had the option to sleep at the venue in a separate room.
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. The majority of the documentary’s footage is of highlights from this epic concert. The rest of the documentary consists of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with principal members of the events team.
Mac explains in the beginning of the film that he conceived this event as a tribute to those who lost their lives in the AIDS crisis. The show starts with 24 musicians on stage, but after each hour, one less musician goes on stage, until the last hour, when Mac is be the sole performer on stage. The decreasing numbers of band musicians on stage are supposed to be symbolic of how communities and families lost people to the AIDS crisis.
Mac also says in the documentary, “The show is about our history of Americans. That history is in our souls.” He also says that “a queer body can become a metaphor for America.” He later adds, “I learned my politics from radical lesbians.”
Mac gives a brief personal background about himself, by saying that he grew up in Stockton, California, which he describes as a very homophobic city that’s overrun with a lot of “ugly tract houses.” After he graduated from acting school, Mac says that he had difficulty getting auditions. However, he found work at New York City drag nightclubs. And the rest is history.
Some of the key people on the event team also give their perspectives of the show. Niegel Smith, the show’s co-director, calls it a “radical realness ritual” that “asks us to move closer to our queerness.” During one of the audience interaction parts of the show, Mac tells audience members to slow dance with people who are of the same gender. The song selection for this same-sex slow dance is “Snakeskin Cowboys,” a song made famous by Ted Nugent, who is a political conservative. It’s obviously Mac’s way of reclaiming the song and putting it in a progressive queer context.
Matt Ray, the show’s musical director, comes from a jazz background. He says the biggest problem in America is “lack of community.” This 24-hour performance, says Ray, is Mac’s way of trying to bring back community to live events. Machine Dazzle, the show’s costume designer, is seen in costume fittings with Mac, who says that he gave no creative restrictions on how Dazzle could make the costumes. Also seen in the documentary is makeup artist Anastasia Durasova.
It’s no coincidence that the performance starts with the year 1776, since it’s the year of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Freedom, liberation and fighting against oppression are constant themes throughout the show. During his performances of popular songs from each decade, Mac gives historical context of what was going on in the United States at the time when the song was popular and why some of the songs have a much more disturbing meaning than they seem to have.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” performed in the hour covering the years 1776 to 1786, sounds like an upbeat and patriotic song. But Mac also reminds people that during this time, the United States was also built on the enslavement of black people and the destruction of Native Americans. The 1820s song “”Coal Black Rose” has racist origins, since it was originally performed by white people wearing blackface makeup, and the song’s lyrics are about raping an enslaved black woman. For the 1830s song “Rove Riley Rove,” Mac says he’s performing the song to evoke a mother or nanny during the Trail of Tears era, when the Native Americans were forced to go on dangerous and deadly routes when they were forced off their ancestral lands.
Not all of the songs performed have depressing and bigoted histories. When Mac gets to the 1970s decades, he performs songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” For “Heroes,” which is performed in the context of the Cold War between Russia and the United States, two giant inflatable penises—one with a U.S. flag decoration, one with a Russian flag decoration—float around on stage. Mac straddles at least one of these inflatable sex organs.
Other songs performed in the show include Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” (which Mac interprets in the performance as a sexual liberation song); the Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “Gimme Shelter”; and “Soliloquy” from the 1945 musical “Carousel,” which Mac was his father’s favorite song. Mac also says that his father died when Mac was 4 years old.
Audience members are encouraged to sing along and participate. And sometimes, Mac invites audiences members on stage during the performance, such as when he selects the oldest person in the room (a man in his 80s) and youngest person in the room (a 20-year-old woman) to dance on stage together. In another part of the show, audience members throw ping pong balls at each other.
Mac doesn’t do all of the lead vocals during the show. There are also guest singers, including Heather Christian, Steffanie Christian, Thornetta Davis, and Anaïs Mitchell. However, there’s no doubt that Mac is the star. He has a charismatic command of the stage, even though he’s not a great singer. He has a wry sense of comedy and keeps the energy level fairly high, even though performing this 24-hour show would be exhausting by any standard.
“Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” has a simple concept with an extravagant and very flamboyant presentation. If drag performances and some bawdiness meant for adults have no appeal to you, then watching this documentary might be overwhelming or a little hard to take. The performance in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will never be duplicated by Mac, but this memorable documentary is the next best thing to being there.
HBO and Max will premiere “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” on June 27, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area, the documentary film “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” features a racially diverse group of middle-class family members discussing what it’s like to be in multiracial families.
Culture Clash: Mixed-race children experience issues such as racism and pressure to identify with one race over another.
Culture Audience: “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a documentary about multiracial families, although the movie is admittedly limited to the director W. Kamau Bell’s circle of friends and family members.
The insightful documentary “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” has wonderfully thoughtful groups of multiracial people and some of their families candidly sharing their stories. “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” director/executive producer W. Kamau Bell, who has biracial children, briefly narrates the movie and can be heard off-camera asking some of the interview questions. Bell tells viewers up front that he mostly interviewed members of his family and his social circle in the politically liberal San Francisco Bay Area. All of the interviewees, except for Bell’s family members, do not have their last names revealed in the documentary. John Legend, who is also a father of multiracial children, is one of the other executive producers of the documentary, but Legend and his family are not in this movie.
The biggest drawback to this one-hour documentary is that there could have been more variety in the socioeconomic statuses and residencies of the interviewees. The people who are interviewed clearly have the privilege of being educated and living in an area where there are numerous interracial families. However, these advantages don’t mean that their stories are less valid or less meaningful, or that they don’t experience racism and other ignorance that all multiracial families experience at one time or another.
W. Kamau Bell (who is African American) and his wife Melissa (who is white), who have been married since 2009, have three daughters: Sami, Juno and Asha. Their eldest daughter Sami (who was 10 years old when she was interviewed for the documentary) and middle daughter Juno (who was 7 years old) have obviously been taught well about what to say about living life in a multiracial family. Like all of the kids in the documentary, they are intelligent, articulate and empathetic when it comes to race and social issues.
Juno says she wasn’t aware of how many people expect her to identify as only one race until a girl at her school incorrectly told Juno that Juno is white. Juno said she felt sad that one of her races wasn’t acknowledged. It’s a challenge that all the mixed-race interviewees say that they’ve experienced at some point in their lives: people expecting multiracial people to prefer or identify with one race over another. And those expectations don’t always come from outsiders. They often come from within a family or from multiracial people themselves.
The good news for multiracial families that is there is now more awareness and tolerance for people’s mixed-race identities, compared to previous decades, when it comes to checking racial identity boxes on documents. In the past, the box would often just say “other” for multiracial people. Now, the box is more likely to say “mixed-race” or “multiracial.”
Myles, an 11-year-old interviewee whose father is African American and whose mother is Filipina, has a brother named Georgio, who is 22 years older than Myles. Georgio and Myles, who both love to play basketball, are interviewed separately and together in the film. Georgio says that when he was Myles’ age, there weren’t as many resources and information for mixed-race people as there are now. “I’m glad that space is there,” Georgio comments about this cultural shift in American society that makes more room for multiracial people.
Georgio also says that where a mixed-race child goes to school can make a big difference in that person’s self-esteem and views of the world. Georgio remembers that when he was in elementary school, he was one of only a few kids in the school who had being black as part of their racial identities, so he identified more as Filipino, because he felt he would be more accepted that way. Georgio’s middle school had many more black students than his elementary school did, but Georgio says he wasn’t fully accepted by black people at the middle school because the black people thought Georgio wasn’t “black enough.” Georgio says he found acceptance and comfort by being on the school’s basketball team, but the racism he experienced still had an effect on him.
One of the best things about “1000% Me” is that it acknowledges the harsh reality that people of color are often judged in terms of a warped racial hierarchy, where certain non-white races are considered “better” than others. An example is a story told by Kaylin, a 16-year-old girl who identifies as black, white and Korean. Her parents are also mixed-race.
Kaylin’s mother has African American as part of her racial identity. Kaylin confesses that her mother won’t like it that Kaylin is sharing this family secret in the documentary, but she says that when her mother filled out the racial identity part of Kaylin’s school application, her mother only identified Kaylin as white and Asian, not as black. Kaylin’s mother is not interviewed in the documentary, but Kaylin’s guidance counselor uncle Greg is interviewed, because he and Kaylin have a close relationship. Greg says his white mother never liked to talk about race.
Kaylin says she felt very hurt at the time she found out that that her own mother was denying that Kaylin is partially black. But now, Kaylin says she understands why her mother did that: Because of black people’s history of enslavement and other oppression in America, Kaylin thinks her mother wanted to protect Kaylin from the racists who think black people are the lowest of all the races. It’s a pathetically racist mindset to rank one race as better than another, but it’s unfortunately true, if you look at how many people don’t have a problem interacting with any race except black people.
And oftentimes, white supremacy is internalized by people of color who want to look as white as possible in order to be accepted. Paolo (who is a Filipino immigrant) and his white American wife Jenn met through their mutual passion for motorcycle riding. They have a daughter named Presley (named after Elvis Presley), who loves to sing (she rides with her father on his karaoke motorcycle), play bass guitar and play volleyball. All three family members are interviewed in the documentary.
Paolo says that when he was growing up in the Philippines, he was taught not to get too tan because he was told that it was desirable to have the lightest skin tone possible. When he moved to America as a child, he only wanted to be friends with white people, because he thought it would make his life easier. Paolo says that it wasn’t until after Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S. that Paolo started to embrace his Filipino identity. Paolo comments that this awakening was a reaction to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, which disproportionately targeted non-white immigrants.
Speaking of immigrants in America, the documentary also addresses the issues of multiracial children who not only have more than one cultural identity but are also the children of non-English-speaking immigrants and therefore speak more than one language. Such is the case with 11-year-old Kanani. Her father Anibal is a Latino and indigenous immigrant originally from Costa Rica. Kanani’s mother Pica is a white American who was raised in the San Diego area.
Kanani and her parents, who are all interviewed in the documentary, talk about how Kanani is being raised with a strong sense of her Costa Rican heritage. Kanani says she goes to visit her father’s side of the family in Costa Rica at least twice a year, and she participates in traditional Costa Rican customs. Kanani’s parents also made the decision to teach her to speak only Spanish before she was old enough to go to school. Kanani’s parents figured that Kanani could learn English when she reached kindergarten age.
Even though the United States does not have an official language, Pica describes getting a rude awakening about the hostility that people can get in America if they don’t speak English. She said it happened when Kanani was pre-school age, and some kids around the same age got into a dispute with Kanani. One of the other kid’s mothers told Pica that the dispute wouldn’t have happened if Kanani knew how to speak English. Pica gets teary and emotional when she remembers this experience, while admitting that because she grew up as a white person in America, she wasn’t fully aware that kids who aren’t white could experience this type of racism at such an early age.
Some interracial couples give their children names that are combination of both parents’ cultural heritages. A 7-year-old girl named Sumaya and her parents Bongo (who is originally from Guinea) and her mother Joti (who is originally from India) was given a name that is a mixture of these two cultures. Bongo and Joti also have another daughter, and the spouses made the unusual decision to give the two daughters different surnames. Sumaya has Boti’s last name, while the other daughter has Joti’s maiden last name.
Meanwhile, 10-year-old Mila’s full first name is Funmilayo. She was named after Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a Nigerian activist/educator. Mila’s middle name is Chow-Mei Mia’s father Bryant is an African American who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. Mila’s mother Jidan is a Chinese American who grew up in Berkely, California. All three family members are interviewed in the movie.
Three siblings with an African American father and a Pakistani mother are interviewed in the documentary: Anisa (11 years old) and her brothers Ibrahim (13 years old) and Khalil (15 years old). All three siblings are being raised as Muslim. Anisa says she’s proud to be the only Muslim in her school class and that she enjoys wearing traditional Muslim clothing (such as a hijab) in public. Anisa says the only thing that bothers her about her family is that her brothers sometimes pick on her because she’s smaller than she is and because she’s a girl.
Another multiracial kid who’s very confident about her racial identity is Mila, who refuses to choose one race over another. Mila’s mother Jidan gets emotional when remembering how she and Bryant got into a big argument when Jidan was younger because Bryant didn’t want Jidan to go to school with mismatched socks, while Jidean didn’t think it was that big of a deal that the socks were mismatched. Bryant had to explain to Jidan that he didn’t want people at the school to think that Jidan was a black girl who wasn’t getting proper care at home.
It’s a prejudice that Bryant said he learned from experience growing up in the Deep South that could lead to bigger problems for African American kids and their parents. Jidan says it pained her to find out that something as simple as wearing mismatched socks to school could have different repercussions for black kids, compared to kids of other races. Now that Mila is older, Bryant says he’s relaxed his views on what types of socks that Mila can wear.
An interesting part of the documentary is when W. Kamau Bell’s mother Janet and Melissa Bell’s mother Chris are interviewed together about what it was like growing up in racially segregated America and what it’s like to be grandmothers of mixed-race children. A segment in the documentary shows granddaughters Sami and Juno sitting in between their grandmothers on couch. Sami explains to Juno for the first time how in their grandmother’s youth, it was legal for white people to be kept separate from all other races and to have more rights than other races. Juno is shown looking shocked that her grandmothers and other people had to live this way in America.
A mixed-race man named Roy, who says he was born in 1941, also recalls this shameful era in America. He says back then, people didn’t know what to call his racial identity except “mulatto” (which is a word he disliked), or he was simply identified as “black” or “Negro,” since he obviously wasn’t completely white.
“1000% Me” also includes mixed-race people who are adopted by white people. In the case of best friends Carter and Nola (both 13-year-old girls), they were each adopted by white lesbian couples. Carter, who is black and Latina, is W. Kamau Bell’s goddaughter. Nola is white and black. Carter says that there are racial issues that her white mothers might not fully understand, so she’s grateful that she can sometimes get support and advice from her adopted 22-year-old African American sister Olivia, who is briefly shown in the movie with Carter and Nola. As Nola says in the documentary about being a mixed-race person: “Being multiple things doesn’t make you any less of those things.”
Mixed-race people have always existed, but it’s taken a surprisingly long time for there to be a comprehensive documentary film about it. Census data statistics suggest that the numbers of mixed-race people will continue to grow in the United States. “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” is an admirable start to helping open up the conversation even more about mixed-race people.
Erica, who identifies as black and Japanese, is a therapist interviewed in the documentary. She has this to say about race relations in America: “We have a lot of work to do. We live in a deeply racist society … There’s a lot of danger in not talking about race.” In other words, ignoring the problem will only make it worse. “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” is a worthy step in the right direction to helping being a solution to the problem.
HBO and HBO Max premiered “1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed” on May 2, 2023.
Culture Representation: The documentary “The Janes” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) discussing the Jane network, a Chicago-based group of mostly women who provided abortion services and counseling before the U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade made abortion legal on a federal level in 1973.
Culture Clash: The Jane network had to be an underground, outlaw group when abortion was illegal, and some members got arrested for homicide in 1972.
Culture Audience: “The Janes” will appeal primarily to people interested in a fascinating documentary about reproductive rights and people who believe in a woman’s right to choose if or when to have a child.
Regardless of how people feel about abortion, “The Janes” documentary is not only a history lesson about what life in America was like before Roe v. Wade but it’s also a compelling reminder of what’s at stake in reproductive rights and family planning. One of the best things about the movie is that it doesn’t give the narrative over to politicians. Instead, the story is told mostly from the perspectives of people who were involved with the Jane network, the Chicago-based underground group that provided abortion services and counseling at a time when abortion was illegal in Illinois and most other states in America.
The Jane network, whose origins began in 1965, disbanded in 1973, when the U.S. Supereme Court case Roe v. Wade made abortion legal on a federal level. The Jane network got its name because people who needed the services were told to ask for someone with the code name Jane when contacting the network, which advertised through flyers and through word of mouth. The outreach began on college campuses but then extended to many other communities in the Chicago area, including low-income and underprivileged communities.
Directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes, “The Janes” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary begins with a harrowing personal story told by Dorie Barron, who got two abortions when abortion was illegal. She got the first abortion at a place that turned out to be disreputable: “I just wanted it over with,” Barron says of the abortion. “I had no other options. I was that desperate.”
Barron also remembers that because of the outlaw nature of this procedure: “It was [like] the mob. You had to talk in code.” “Chevy” meant the abortion cost $500. “Cadillac” meant that the abortion cost $750. “Rolls Royce” mean that the abortion cost $1,000.
Barron vividly recalls that as she was waiting to get her abortion that there were “three men and one woman, who brought another patient. They spoke all of three sentences the entire time: ‘Where’s the money? Lie back and do as I tell you. Get in the bathroom.'”
This cold and uncaring attitude wasn’t the worst of her experience though. After the abortion, she and the other abortion patient were sent to a hotel room. Barron says she was bleeding profusely and decided to get professional medical help for herself, knowing she’d be at risk of being arrested if the medical professional who treated her wanted to report her for having an abortion. “If I had stayed in that hotel room, I’d be dead,” Barron says emphatically.
Barron says she had her second abortion with the Jane network, which she describes as giving her a “total opposite” experience compared to her first abortion. With the Jane network, Barron says: “All I heard were kind words, consideration, concern. When I tell you they changed my life, they changed my life.”
Barron’s story is an example of how the Jane network distinguished itself from the incompetent patient care that other underground abortionists provided. According to “The Janes,” the Jane network is estimated to have performed about 11,000 abortions, with none of the patients dying as a direct result of these abortion procedures. It’s an astounding feat, considering all the horror stories before Roe v. Wade of women and girls who died after getting illegal abortions.
The documentary includes disturbing details of septic wards in Chicago hospitals where women and girls with botched abortions often received improper treatment and sometimes died as a result. Those who didn’t die were at risk of being arrested. Several people in the documentary say that the Jane network was different from other abortion groups because the Jane network was led by women, and the services included empathetic counseling in a safe and non-judgmental atmosphere.
The Jane network’s origins began in 1965, when activist Heather Booth was a student at the University of Chicago. A friend, who was also a University of Chicago student, was raped, and the rape victim was unfairly shamed for being “promiscuous.” In 1965, Booth also became involved in the Freedom Summer Project, an activist event. “And during that summer, I learned you have to stand up to legitimate authority,” Booth says in the documentary. “Sometimes, there are unjust laws that need to be challenged.”
Booth states that the turning point for her to become a reproductive rights activist was when a friend told her that his pregnant sister was suicidal because the pregnancy was unwanted. It motivated Booth to start an underground abortion service that ended up growing into the Jane network, whose official name was Abortion Counseling Service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Booth says in the documentary that when she launched this service, she was referred to Dr. T.M. Howard, a medical professional who could perform abortions. When she started getting more people to refer to Dr. Howard, she knew there was a demand to have an underground network.
“The Janes” documentary has interviews with several other women who worked in the Jane network, including Judith Arcana (also known as Judy Pildes), Marie Leaner, Martha Scott, Diane Stevens, Eleanor Oliver and Laura Kaplan. The documentary also features interviews with women who used the Jane network’s abortion services (or took a friend to the Jane network) but who only wanted to be identified by a first name in this movie. They include women identified by the names Abby, Eileen, Crystal O., Jeanne, Peaches and Sheila.
After Dr. Howard was arrested for performing illegal abortions, Booth was referred to someone who is interviewed in the documentary and uses the alias Mike. When Mike worked with the Janes, he used the code name Dr. Kaplan, even though he was never a medical doctor, but he received abortion training from a real medical doctor. The Jane network found out that Mike wasn’t a real doctor, but continued to use his services out of necessity until they parted ways with him because of money issues.
Mike says he got involved in doing Jane network abortions because it paid about “four or five times” the amount of money that he could make from doing construction work. He says he didn’t get personally involved with any of the patients’ feelings or problems when doing abortions. “It was a job,” he says nonchalantly in the documentary. By his own admission, Mike eventually had a falling out with the Jane network when he wanted to get paid more money than the network could give him.
Leaner comments on Mike: “I thought he was a blowhard, sort of a con man and a showman and a wise guy. But I also thought that he had a heart.” Mike wasn’t the only person doing abortions for the Jane network. Many women of the Jane network eventually performed abortions, even though they were not medical doctors either. It’s mentioned in the documentary that they did so because licensed medical doctors did not want to get involved or would charge too much money.
Because of the secretive nature of the Jane network, it was standard practice to talk in code. “The Front” was the term used for the waiting room. “The Place” would be the place where the abortions procedures happened. Women and girls who needed the abortion services could use aliases, although they often had to provide the real phone numbers where they could be contacted. In an era before the Internet or burner cell phones, it was a lot harder for people to get temporary contact information that couldn’t be traced back to them.
However, the Jane network had a confidentiality policy not just for their clients’ protection but also for their own protection. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the Chicago Mafia got involved (no doubt through payoffs for protection), which is typical of any illegal operation that attracts the Mafia. At a time when the overwhelming majority of attorneys, doctors and clergy were men, the Jane network also had male allies in these professions who would secretly offer their services to Jane clients.
Speaking of attorneys, Arcana’s lawyer husband (who has a surname that is not Arcana) is also interviewed in “The Janes.” At his request, he is only identified in the documentary by his first name: Michael. He says that he and many of his mostly male attorney peers did not want to get involved in abortion issues at the time, not only because abortion was illegal then but also because civil rights attorneys such as himself were more focused on race relations and had little to no interest in women’s rights.
Still, Arcana says that being a white woman married to an attorney helped a great deal when she and six other Jane network members were arrested in Chicago for homicide on May 3, 1972, because of the abortion services that they provided. The arrestees were Arcana, Scott, Stevens, Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, Abby Pariser, Sheila Smith and Madeleine Schwenk. (Ironically, nearly 50 years to the day later—on May 2, 2022—the news website Politico revealed a U.S. Supreme Court leaked draft suggesting that members of the court are preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade.)*
Arcana, who had recently given birth at the time of her 1972 arrest, says in the documentary that she had certain privileges that she knew would work to her advantage when it came to getting out on bail. Arcana comments, “Not only was I a nursing mother, I was a college graduate, a white woman, and married to a lawyer. And all of those things were going to get me out on bail. And boy, did I not disbelieve that.”
Because most of the Janes were privileged white women (many were homemakers, college students and full-time activists), they often came from very different backgrounds from many of the low-income people who needed the Jane network’s services. When New York state made abortion legal in 1970, and certain women in the Chicago area could afford to travel to New York for abortions, the Jane clients’ demographics changed to have more low-income people than ever before. “The Janes” documentary mentions that there were tensions and disagreements in the group about how to interact with underprivileged people. The Jane network eventually agreed to offer discounts or free services to those who couldn’t afford to pay the full price.
Issues of race and social class also came up because women of color were rarely allowed to be Jane network leaders. Leaner (who is African American) comments, “There were more women of color—not necessarily on the team of people, but the people who consumed the service.” Kaplan agrees: “The women who came through the Jane network [for abortion services] were very, very different from the women who were in Jane. We would say to women [of color], ‘You can join us,’ but there weren’t a lot of takers.”
“It was a concern for us,” Kaplan says of the differences in racial and social classes between the most of the Jane network workers and most of the Jane network clients, particularly in the network’s later years. “We were primarily white, middle-class women.” The documentary mentions that efforts were made to be mindful of different races and social classes, but the Jane network wasn’t perfect, and it how to deal with race/class differences was an area that always needed improving.
“The Janes” documentary says that Leaner was instrumental in getting civil rights attorney Jo-Anne Wolfson to represent the Jane network defendants in the homicide case. Wolfson, who was initially reluctant to take the case, had a strategy to delay the trial as much as possible. It turned out to be the correct strategy because the U.S. Supreme court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 made the homicide charges no longer legally viable, so the charges were dropped. The Jane network disbanded not long after the Roe v. Wade decision, since their underground services were no longer needed.
The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat that abortion before Roe v. Wade was risky not just for physical reasons and legal reasons, but also for psychological and emotional reasons. The stress of being involved in illegal abortions took a toll on many of the clients and workers of the Jane network. The documentary mentions that one Jane leader identified only as Jody eventually had to check into a psychiatric facility because she had a breakdown. Jody eventually quit the Jane network.
And how did the Jane network stay underground for as long as it did with no arrests until 1972? Arcana’s husband Michael puts it bluntly by saying that a lot of the Jane network’s abortion clients were the wives, girlfriends and daughters of influential people in law enforcement and politics. Many of these men paid for the abortions.
Other people interviewed in the documentary include former Chicago homicide detective Ted O’Connor, Rev. Patricia Novick-Raby and Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper. In the documentary, Dr. Allan Weiland and former registered nurse Kathleen Kennedy talk about what they witnessed in pre-Roe. v. Wade septic wards at Chicago hospitals. A man who is only identified by the name Wayne says in the documentary that he was married to a woman who worked in the Jane network with his full support. “Our daughters understood not to talk about it, but they understood that it was just part of my life,” Wayne comments.
As a documentary, “The Janes” might not change people’s minds about the abortion issue. But the movie certainly succeeds in showing that abortion is a health issue that can affect anyone. This isn’t an issue that should be considered only in the realm of a select number of elite politicians and other lawmakers. “The Janes” shows in no uncertain terms that people who are directly affected can be family members, friends and other loved ones of people from all walks of life. These human stories and experiences are at the heart of reproductive rights and family planning.
*UPDATE: On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, thereby eliminating the federal law making abortion legal in the U.S., and giving jurisdiction to each U.S. state to decide what the state’s abortion laws will be. This ruling means that abortions in the U.S. can now be illegal or legal, depending on the state.
HBO and HBO Max will premiere “The Janes” on June 8, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place from 1981 to 1997, the documentary “The Princess” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and royalty discussing the life of Diana, the Princess of Wales, who died in a car accident in 1997, at the age of 36.
Culture Clash: Diana was plagued by a troubled marriage to Prince Charles; issues with depression and bulimia; and ongoing battles with the media over her privacy.
Culture Audience: “The Princess” will appeal primarily to people who can’t get enough of watching Princess Diana documentaries, but this all-archival documentary reveals nothing new and has nothing interesting to say.
In the never-ending cottage industry of Princess Diana biographies and Princess Diana exploitation, the sloppily made documentary “The Princess” is completely unnecessary and leaves out a lot of information. The Wikipedia page for Princess Diana has more information than this cynical cash grab of a movie. The ending of “The Princess” is extremely off-putting by concluding abruptly with an image of Diana’s burial casket being driven off during the funeral. The movie irresponsibly doesn’t even mention that in Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, the driver of the car was drunk.
Directed by Ed Perkins, “The Princess” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary consists entirely of archival footage from 1981 to 1997—the years that the woman born as Diana Spencer lived in the public eye. Most of the footage is from British television. There is absolutely nothing new in this documentary that hasn’t already been seen elsewhere, except for some random home videos of people reacting to Diana’s untimely death. (She died in Paris on August 31, 1997.)
Watching this movie is exactly like watching a video version of a Wikipedia page, but less so because the movie gives no information about the investigation into Diana’s death. The filmmakers also seem to have an agenda by leaving out the drunk-driver information and instead showing repetitive footage of people blaming the paparazzi for Diana’s death. The documentary ignores the reality that the investigation into the car accident, the news coverage about it and the facts uncovered were extremely important to Diana’s tragic story.
“The Princess” is just a chronological telling of basic facts of her life that people already know, with some tabloid headlines thrown in the mix. People already know about the courtship and doomed marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. (The former spouses separated in 1992, and officially divorced in 1996.) People already know about the conflicts in the British Royal Family. People already know about the tabloid scandals, Diana’s charity work, and how much she adored her sons William and Harry.
There are amateur YouTube videos about Princess Diana that are more interesting than this lazy documentary. The film has voiceover soundbites, but the people talking in these voiceovers are never identified, and neither are the media sources for these soundbites, or the year that these comments were made. The only people who might think “The Princess” is interesting are people who don’t know much about Princess Diana, or obsessive fans who can’t get enough of anything to do with her, no matter tacky it is.
UPDATE: HBO and HBO Max will premiere “The Princess” on August 13, 2022.
The following is a press release from the Television Academy:
Nominations for the 73rd Emmy® Awards were announced today recognizing a wealth of innovative storytelling, exceptional new programs, and a robust and diverse group of talent nominees.
The live virtual ceremony was hosted by father-daughter duo Ron Cephas Jones (“This Is Us”) from Los Angeles and Jasmine Cephas Jones (“Blindspotting”) from New York along with Television Academy Chairman and CEO Frank Scherma. “The Crown” and “The Mandalorian” have tied for the top spot for program nominations with 24 followed by “WandaVision” (23), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (21), “Saturday Night Live” (21), “Ted Lasso” (20), “Lovecraft Country” (18), “The Queen’s Gambit” (18) and “Mare of Easttown” (16).
HBO/HBO Max leads the nominations in totals by platform with 130. Netflix has the second-most nominations with 129, and rounding out the top four are Disney+ with 71 and NBC with 46.
“Television has provided a lifeline for so many around the globe this year, delivering a constant source of entertainment, information and inspiration during some of our most difficult days,” said Scherma. “We are thrilled to honor the diversity of storytelling in television today by recognizing talented artists, programs, producers, directors and craftspeople throughout our industry and celebrating their commitment to this extraordinary medium.”
“Bridgerton,” “Lovecraft Country” and “The Boys” are newcomers to the Outstanding Drama Series category, joining returning nominees “Pose,” “The Crown,””The Mandalorian,” “This Is Us” and previous category winner “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Seventy-five percent of this year’s nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series are new to the category including “Cobra Kai,” “Emily in Paris,” “Hacks,” “Pen15,” “Ted Lasso” and “The Flight Attendant.” Returning favorites include “black-ish” and “The Kominsky Method.”
In total, there were 44 first-time performer nominations across the Lead, Supporting, Guest and Short Form categories this season.
Jonathan Majors, Josh O’Connor and Regé-Jean Page received their first-ever Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series joining previous Emmy winners in this category Sterling K. Brown, Billy Porter and Matthew Rhys. Emma Corrin, Jurnee Smollett and Mj Rodriguez received their first nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, while previous Emmy winner Uzo Aduba was nominated for the first time in this category. They are joined by returning nominee Olivia Colman and previous Emmy winner in this category Elisabeth Moss.
Kaley Cuoco received her first-ever Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, while previous Emmy winner Jean Smart and previous Emmy nominee Aidy Bryant were nominated for the first time in this category. They join previous Emmy nominee Tracee Ellis Ross and Emmy winner Allison Janney.
Jason Sudeikis received his first-ever Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, while previous Emmy winner Kenan Thompson was nominated for the first time in this category. They join six-time nominee in the category Anthony Anderson, along with previous Emmy winners Michael Douglas and William H. Macy. Individuals with multiple nominations this year include David Attenborough, Sterling K. Brown, Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, Steven Canals, Dave Chapelle, Michaela Coel, Jon Favreau, Derek Hough, Brendan Hunt, Maya Rudolph, Jean Smart, Jason Sudeikis and Kenan Thompson.
The nominations rosters may be revised in cases where names or titles are incorrect or appeals for changes—including the addition or removal of names—are approved by the Television Academy’s Emmy Awards Committee. Producer eligibility is based primarily on title; the producer nominees in certain program categories will be announced by mid-August. Final-round online voting begins Aug. 19, 2021.
The complete list of Emmy nominations, as compiled by the independent accounting firm of Ernst & Young LLP, and other Academy news are available at Emmys.com. As recently announced, the 73rd Emmy Awards will be hosted by Cedric the Entertainer. Executive Producers Reginald Hudlin and Ian Stewart and Director Hamish Hamilton have been selected to helm the show for production companies Done+Dusted and Hudlin Entertainment. The Emmys will be broadcast on Sunday, Sept. 19 (8:00-11:00 PM, live ET/5:00-8:00 PM, live PT) on the CBS Television Network and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+. The 2021 Creative Arts Awards will be broadcast on Saturday, Sept. 18 (8:00 PM ET/PT) on FXX.
Culture Representation: The documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Asian) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.”
Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and “Sesame Street” has endured controversy over racial diversity, AIDS and representation of the LGBTQ community.
Culture Audience: “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a comprehensive overview of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on how “Sesame Street” is responding to current global issues.
ABC’s documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” offers some nostalgia for “Sesame Street” fans, but the movie is more concered about how this groundbreaking children’s culture has made an impact around the world and with contemporary social issues. Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz, it’s an occasionally repetitive film that admirably embraces diversity in a variety of viewpoints. The major downside to the film is that it won’t be considered a timeless “Sesame Street” documentary, because the movie very much looks like it was made in 2020/2021. Therefore, huge parts of the movie will look outdated in a few years.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” premiered on ABC just three days after director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was released in select U.S. cinemas. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which focused mainly on “Sesame Street’s” history from 1969 to the early 1990s, interviewed people who were “Sesame Street” employees from this time period, as well as some of the family members of principal “Sesame Street” employees who are now deceased. “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a broader approach and includes the perspectives of not just past and present employees of “Sesame Street” but also several “Sesame Street” fans who are famous and not famous.
In addition, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (which was produced by Time Studios) makes a noteworthy effort to convey the global impact of “Sesame Street,” by including footage and interviews with people involved with the adapted versions of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and in South Africa. “Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, launched in 1969 on PBS. In the U.S., first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” began airing on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020. “Sesame Street” is now available in more than 150 countries.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” quickly breezes through how “Sesame Street” was conceived and launched. There are brief mentions of “Sesame Street” co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but this documentary does not interview them. “Street Gang” has interviews with Ganz Cooney and Morrisett, who go into details about how they were inspired to create “Sesame Street” to reach pre-school kids, particularly African American children in urban cities, who had television as an electronic babysitter.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” just like “Street Gang” did, discusses that the concept behind “Sesame Street” was to have a children’s TV show with a racially integrated cast and puppets, which were called muppets. A lot of research went into creating the show before it was even launched. The intent of “Sesame Street” was for the show to be educational and entertaining.
But the creators also wanted “Sesame Street” to include real-life topics that weren’t normally discussed on children’s television at the time. For example, when actor Will Lee, who played “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” had an episode that discussed Mr. Hooper dying. “Sesame Street” did not lie to the audience by making up a story that Mr. Hooper had moved away or was still alive somewhere.
Time For Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco says, “Many people avoid the topics that they know are going to be lightning rods. ‘Sesame Street’ goes straight for it. And they handle each and every one of them with the amount of thoughtfulness and research and care that they require.”
David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” mentions that one of the reasons for the longevity of “Sesame Street” is the show’s ability to adapt to changing times: “They’ll pivot. They’ll adjust. They’ll say, ‘We got it wrong. Now, we’re going to get it right.’ That’s one of [the show’s] great virtues.”
One of the noticeable differences seen in comparing these two “Sesame Street” documentaries is how racial diversity has improved for “Sesame Street” behind the scenes. “Street Gang,” which focused on the first few decades of “Sesame Street” shows that although the on-camera cast was racially diverse, behind the scenes it was another story: Only white people were the leaders and decision makers for “Sesame Street” in the show’s early years. Several current “Sesame Street” decision makers are interviewed in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” and it’s definitely a more racially diverse group of people, compared to who was running the show in the first two decades of “Sesame Street.”
Sonia Monzano, an original “Sesame Street” cast member (her character is Maria), says that although the show has always had a racially diverse cast, the muppets are the “Sesame Street” characters that people remember the most. “I remember my first scene with [muppet character] Grover,” Monzano comments with a chuckle. “It took me a while to be comfortable, not try to upstage them. And that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform. Get out of their way.”
As memorable as the “Sesame Street” muppets are, the human characters on the show had a particular impact on children, who saw “Sesame Street” people who reminded them of their family members or neighbors. Several celebrities who are interviewed in the documentary grew up watching “Sesame Street”—including Lucy Liu, Rosie Perez, Olivia Munn and Questlove—and they talk about the importance of seeing their lives and experiences represented on the show.
Perez comments on the show’s racial diversity: “We needed to see that, because when you’re a little girl in Brooklyn watching ‘Sesame Street,’ it’s nice to know that when you opened your door and walked down your stoop, you had the same type of people on your television.” Perez says about “Sesame Street’s” Maria character: “She was my Mary Tyler Moore,” and that until Maria came along, “Desi Arnaz Jr. was our only [Hispanic TV] role model for years.”
Racism, social justice and AIDS are some of the topics that “Sesame Street” has openly discussed over the years, sometimes to considerable controversy. But one topic was apparently too much to handle in “Sesame Street’s” first year: divorce. In “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” it’s mentioned that the original pilot episode of “Sesame Street” had a segment about muppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus dealing with his parents’ divorce. The “Sesame Street” executives did a test screening of this episode with children.
“The kids freaked out” because the idea of divorce was too upsetting for them, says Time staff writer Cady Lang. And the episode was “tossed out.” The documentary has some of this unaired Mr. Snuffleupagus “divorce” footage. In the documentary, Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer and original voice for Mr. Snuffleupagus, expresses disappointment that this decision was made to eliminate talk of divorce on the first “Sesame Street” episode, because he says it was a missed opportunity for “Sesame Street” to start off with an episode that would have been very cutting-edge at the time.
However, there would be plenty of other episodes that would rile up some people. It’s not mentioned in the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, but it’s mentioned in the “Street Gang” documentary that TV stations in Mississippi briefly wouldn’t televise “Sesame Street” in 1970, because they said people in their communities thought the show’s content was inappropriate. They denied it had to do with the show having a racially integrated cast. But considering that Mississippi was one of the last U.S. states to keep laws enforcing racial segregation, it would be naïve to think that racism wasn’t behind the “Sesame Street” ban.
The topics of racism and race relations take up a lot of screen time in this “Sesame Street” documentary, but mostly as pertaining to a contemporary audience, not the “Sesame Street” audience of past decades. Black Lives Matter protests and the racist murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have been discussed on “Sesame Street.” And there has been a concerted effort to have all races represented on “Sesame Street,” for the human cast members as well as the muppets.
Roosevelt Franklin (the first African American muppet on “Sesame Street”) was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975, and was voiced and created by Matt Robinson. The “Sesame Street” documentary briefly mentions Roosevelt Franklin, but doesn’t go into the details that “Street Gang” did over why the character was removed from the show: A lot of African American parents and educators complained that Roosevelt Franklin played too much into negative “ghetto” stereotypes. In the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, musician Questlove and TV host W. Kamau Bell mention that they have fond memories of watching Roosevelt Franklin on “Sesame Street” when they were kids.
Although most muppets aren’t really any race, some of have been created to be of a specific race or ethnicity. Some muppets look like humans, while others look like animals. For the human-looking muppets, there have been Asian, Hispanic and Native American muppets in addition to the muppets that are presented as white or black people. And the documentary also gives significant screen time to Mexican muppet Rosita, a character introduced in 1991, which is considered a role model to many, particularly to Spanish-speaking people. Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer and voice of Rosita, is interviewed in the documentary.
The documentary features a Mexican immigrant family called the Garcias, including interviews with mother Claudia and her autistic daughter Makayla, who are the only U.S. citizens of the family members who live in the United States. The Garcias say they love watching “Sesame Street” for Rosita, because she represents so many American residents who are bilingual in Spanish and English. Claudia Garcia, who moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 12, comments in the documentary: “When I was 12, it was not cool to speak Spanish. Now, it [the ability to speak Spanish] is a super-cool thing that you have.”
Four other diverse muppet characters are the Walker Family, an African American clan that is intended to be a major presence in contemporary “Sesame Street” episodes. Elijah Walker (a meteorologist) and his underage son Wesley, also known as Wes, have already been introduced. The characters of Elijah’s wife Naomi (a social worker originally from the Caribbean) and Elijah’s mother Savannah were being developed at the time this documentary was filmed. The documentary includes concept art for Naomi and Savannah.
According to Social Impact U.S. vice president Rocío García, “The Walker Family is a new family we’re creating for the racial justice initiative [Coming Together].” Wes and Elijah are characters that are supposed to contradict the media’s constant, negative narrative that black males are problematic. “Sesame Street” producer Ashmou Young describes the Wes Walker character as “a happy, energetic, innocent child who loves reading and architecture.” Elijah is a positive, intelligent role model. And no, he does not have an arrest record.
Bradley Freeman Jr., the puppeteer for Wes Walker, says in the documentary how proud he is to be part of this character, which he knows can be a role model for all children. “I was bullied at school for being black. That’s something that can hurt you, and you don’t know how to talk about it.” In “Sesame Street,” Elijah and Wes candidly discuss race issues and what it means to be an African American.
Omar Norman and Alisa Norman, an African American married couple, are in the documentary with their two daughters and discuss how the Walker Family on “Sesame Street” means a lot to them. Elder daughter Macayla says it’s impactful when Elijah talks to Wes about racism and how being a black male means being more at risk of experiencing police brutality. Omar gets emotional and tries not to cry when he thinks about how it’s sadly necessary for these topics to be discussed on a children’s show.
All the muppet characters were designed to not only teach kids (and adults) about life but also show what the world is all about and how to cope with problems in a positive way. Chris Jackson (who’s known for his role in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton”) talks about writing the song “I Love My Hair,” which debuted on “Sesame Street” in 2010. The song was written for any girl muppet to sing, but it has special significance to black girls because of how black females are judged the harshest by what their hair looks like. Jackson says that after he wrote the song, he thought, “I think I just wrote a black girl’s superhero anthem,” which he knows means a lot to his daughter.
And if some people have a problem with “Sesame Street” supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, well, no one is forcing them to watch the show. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, comments: “Following the murder of George Floyd, the company decided to make it a company-wide goal of addressing racial injustice [on ‘Sesame Street’].” U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden adds, “‘Sesame Street’ is rising up to he movement and addressing what’s going on and what kids are seeing and feeling around them.”
Wilson Stallings says, “We showed diversity, we showed inclusion, we modeled it through our characters. But you can’t just show characters of different ethnicities and races getting along. That was fine before. Now what we need to do is be bold and explicit.”
Sesame Workshop CEO Steve Youngwood comments on increasing “Sesame Street’s” socially conscious content: “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment the way it needed to be. And we pivoted to address it. The curriculum we developed is going to be groundbreaking, moving forward.”
LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street” is still a touchy subject for people who have different opinions on what’s the appropriate age for kids to have discussions about various sexual identities. In 2018, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman, who is openly gay, gave an interview saying that he always wrote muppet characters Ernie and Bert (bickering best friends who live together) as a gay couple. The revelation got mixed reactions. Frank Oz—the creator, original voice and puppeteer for Bert—made a statement on Twitter that Ernie and Bert were never gay.
Sesame Workshop responded with a statement that read: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”
In retrospect, Sesame Workshop president Sherrie Westin says: “That denial, if you will, I think was a mistake.” She also adds that people can think of Ernie and Bert having whatever sexuality (or no sexuality) that they think Ernie and Bert have. As for LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street,” Jelani Memory (author of “A Kid’s Book About Racism”) is blunt when he says: “It’s not enough.”
And it’s not just social issues that are addressed on “Sesame Street.” The show has also discussed health issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “Sesame Street” got pushback from some politically conservative people for talking about AIDS on the show, this criticism didn’t deter “Sesame Street,” which was supported by the majority of its audience for this decision. Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the documentary praising “Sesame Street” for helping educate people on health crises.
The documentary includes a segment on the first HIV-positive muppet Kami, a character in “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of “Sesame Street.” Kami, who is supposed to be a 5-year-old girl, was created in 2002, in reaction to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Her positive outlook on life and how she is accepted by her peers can be viewed as having an impact on people that’s hard to measure.
Marie-Louise Samuels, former director early childhood development at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, has this to say about Kami: “It wasn’t about her getting some sympathy. It was really about how productive she is in society with the virus.” Even though Kami was well-received in South Africa, “the U.S. was not as receptive,” says Louis Henry Mitchell, creative director of character design at Sesame Workshop.
Also included is a segment on Julia, the first autistic muppet on “Sesame Street.” It’s a character that is near and dear to the heart of Julia puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who tears up and gets emotional when she describes her own real-life experiences as the mother of an autistic child. Julia is one of several muppet characters that represent people with special needs. As an autistic child of a Mexican immigrant family, Makayla Garcia says in her interview that Rosita and Julia are her favorite muppets because they represent who she is.
The documentary shows how “Sesame Street” is in Arabic culture with the TV series “Ahlan Simsim,” which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in English. The Rajubs, a real-life Syrian refugee family of eight living in Jordan, are featured in the documentary as examples of a family who find comfort in “Ahlan Simsim” even though they’re experiencing the turmoil of being refugees. David Milliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee, talks about how “Sesame Street” being a consistent presence in children’s lives can help them through the trauma.
Other people interviewed in the documentary include Shari Rosenfeld, senior VP of international at Social Impact; Elijah Walker puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes; Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop; Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Peter Linz, voice of muppet character Elmo; “Sesame Street” actor Alan Muraoka; Nyanga Tshabalala, puppeteer for the mupppet character Zikwe on “Takalani Sesame”; and former “Ahlan Simsim” head writer Zaid Baqueen. Celebrity fans of “Sesame Street” who comment in the documentary include Usher, Gloria Estefan, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and John Oliver, who says about the show: “It was my first introduction to comedy, because it was so relentlessly funny.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie comments that The Count (the muppet vampire who teaches counting skills) is her favorite “Sesame Street” character: “He had a wonderfully bold personality: The friendly vampire helping you learn how to count. It worked for me.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “All the things that ‘Twilight’ did for vampires, The Count did more. [The Count] made vampires cool because they could count.”
Jolie also comments on “Sesame Street’s” social awareness: “What they’re bringing is more relevant to today than ever.” The documentary includes 2021 footage of “Sesame Street” executives cheering when finding out that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee won the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100 and Change Award, a grant that gives the recipients $100 million over a maximum of six years.
There’s also a notable segment on the music of “Sesame Street.” Stevie Wonder (who has performed “123 Sesame Street” and “Superstition” on “Sesame Street”) performs in the documentary with a new version of the “Sesame Street” classic theme “Sunny Days.” The documentary has the expected montage of many of the celebrity guests who’ve been on “Sesame Street” too.
“United Shades of America” host Bell says that being asked to be on “Sesame Street” is a “rite of passage” for “famous people at a certain point. Got to get that ‘Sesame Street’ gig! That’s when you know you really made it: When ‘Sesame Street’ calls you.”
Although there’s a lot of talk about certain “Sesame Street” muppets, the documentary doesn’t give enough recognition to the early “Sesame Street” muppet pioneers who created iconic characters. The documentary briefly mentions Jim Henson (the creator and original voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie), but Frank Oz (the creator and original voice of Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert) isn’t even mentioned at all.
Big Bird is seen but not much is said about Caroll Spinney, who was the man in the Big Bird costume from 1969 to 2018, and who was the creator and original voice of the Oscar the Grouch muppet. Spinney died in 2019, at the age of 85. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the documentary.
The movie doesn’t mention the 2012 scandal of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash resigning from “Sesame Street” after three men accused him of sexually abusing them when the men were underage teenagers. The three lawsuits against Clash with these accusations were dismissed in 2014. Clash had been the puppeteer and voice of Elmo since 1984.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to bite off a little more than it should chew when it starts veering into discussions about United Nations initiatives and how they relate to “Sesame Street.” There’s no denying the global impact of “Sesame Street,” but “Sesame Street” is a children’s show, not a political science show about international relations. And some viewers might be turned off by all the talk about social justice content on “Sesame Street.”
The documentary could have used more insight into the actual process of creating these memorable muppets. Except for some brief footage in a puppet-creating workspace, that artistic aspect of “Sesame Street” is left out of the documentary. Despite some flaws and omissions, the documentary is worth watching for people who want a snapshot of what’s important to “Sesame Street” in the early 2020s. Whereas “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is very much about the show’s past, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to give viewers a glimpse into the show’s future.
ABC premiered “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” on April 26, 2021. Hulu premiered the documentary on April 27, 2021.
Culture Representation: The documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African American and Latinos) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.“
Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and some TV stations initially refused to carry the show because of this racial diversity.
Culture Audience: “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the history of “Sesame Street” from 1969 to the early 1990s.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”(directed by Marilyn Agrelo) is a documentary that is very much an “origin story” of “Sesame Street,” because it focuses so much on what the show was like in the 20th century. The movie gives a very good and comprehensive overview of the behind-the-scenes work and conflicts that went into making this groundbreaking children’s show, which has been televised in the U.S. on PBS since 1969. (“Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, began airing first-run episodes on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020.) What’s missing from the documentary is more current information about “Sesame Street,” including muppet characters that were introduced in the 21st century, and a contemporary context of why the show is still impactful today.
The ABC documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a more modern look at the “Sesame Street” phenomenon and how the show has adapted to a global audience and a more diverse culture. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is pure nostalgia for a bygone era when the Internet didn’t exist, and kids’ on-screen entertainment options at home were mainly to be found on television, until computers and video games became household items in the 1980s. “Street Gang” (which was produced in association with HBO Documentary Films) is inspired by Michael Davis’ 2008 non-fiction book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.”
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is so rooted in the past that it’s impossible not to notice a huge racial disparity between who appeared on camera for “Sesame Street” and who was running the show behind the scenes. In “Street Gang,” several of the original “Sesame Street” staffers say that the show was conceived to have a target audience of “inner city” African American children, with cast members who were African American, white and Hispanic. Later, a few Asian cast members were added.
But for the longest time, the only people making decisions about the show were white. The head writers and executive producers were white, almost all the puppeteers were white, and even the crew (camera operators, editors, etc.) were all white. It’s all there to see in the archival footage.
And it’s a sign of the times. When “Sesame Street” was launched in 1969, it was only five years after the Civil Right Acts went into law, and much of the United States was still unofficially racially segegrated. Therefore, the racially integrated cast for “Sesame Street” was very groundbreaking for a children’s show at the time.
The show’s setting also broke traditions in children’s television: It took place in an imaginary urban location called Sesame Street, where humans and a variety of puppets (also known as muppets) co-existed and learned from each other. Almost everyone agrees that the muppets were the real stars of the show.
“Sesame Street” puppeteers/writers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who both created and voiced several muppet characters (including best friends Ernie and Bert), get a lot of praise in the documentary for being the show’s driving creative force. Joan Ganz Cooney and Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Lloyd Morrisett are credited with coming up with the “Sesame Street” concept, with Ganz Cooney being largely responsible for putting together the show’s original team. And longtime “Sesame Street” director/writer Jon Stone (who died in 1997, at age 64) is singled out as having the most to do with keeping the show’s proverbial engine running for decades. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the “Street Gang” documentary.
Ganz Cooney explains in “Street Gang” why it was so important to her for “Sesame Street” to be racially integrated, at least on screen. She says that she was “heavily involved in the civil rights movement. I was not focused on children though.” That changed when Morrisett attended a dinner party hosted by Ganz Cooney in the late 1960s.
Morrisett remembers, “I was a psychologist at the Carnegie Foundation, and we were heavily influenced by the national dialogue in the [racial and economic] gap that was being created in schools. I wondered if there was a possibility for television to help children with school, but television was not very popular with the Carnegie staff. Academics weren’t interested in television.'”
At this fateful dinner party, Morrisett asked Ganz Gooney if television could be used as a way to educate children. The Carnegie Foundation then hired Ganz Cooney to do a feasibility study, where the bulk of the study’s original $8 million budget came from the U.S. federal government’s Office of Education. The study revealed that because children were spending more time watching TV than children did in the 1950s, and because more children than ever before had mothers working outside the home, television had become an electronic babysitter for a lot of kids.
And so, the idea of “Sesame Street” was born to be a show that would both entertain and educate pre-school-age children, in a racially integrated setting that had puppets with distinctive personalities. And, for the first time in American TV history, television writers and children’s educators would collaborate on episodes. At first, the idea was to have the humans in episode segments that were separate from the muppets. But test screenings shown to kids found that the kids responded best to the show when the humans interacted with the muppets.
Ganz Cooney says in “Street Gang” that even though she came up with the concept of “Sesame Street,” she experienced sexism from certain people who didn’t think a woman should oversee the show. However, Ganz Cooney says that because the entire show “was all in my head,” TV executives needed her to bring her vision to reality. They had no choice but to give her the top leadership role for “Sesame Street.”
One of the first people she recruited was Sharon Lerner, who had a master’s degree in education from Columbia University. Lerner was hired to be a research and curriculum coordinator for “Sesame Street.” Lerner says it was “unprecedented” to see educators and TV writers teaming up to help create a TV show for children. Other staffers from the early years of “Sesame Street” who are interviewed in the documentary include camera operator Frank Biondo and composer/lyricist/writer Christopher Cerf.
Based on the research studies, economically disadvantaged non-white children in urban areas, especially African American children, were getting inferior educations in public schools, compared to their white counterparts. And so, the idea was to target these “inner city” kids with a TV show that could help bridge the gap in their education. In an archival TV interview, Stone describes why an urban street was chosen as the “Sesame Street” setting: “To the 3-year-old cooped up in the room upstairs, the action is on the street.”
Ganz Cooney admits that at first she wasn’t convinced that the show should take place on an urban street because “I didn’t know how it would play to suburban parents.” Translation: “I didn’t know if it would alienate white people who live in very white neighborhoods.” Jon Stone is given credit for the urban street idea, which turned out to be the right concept, because “Sesame Street” soon developed a reputation for not shying away from real-life topics that are often tough to discuss with kids, such as death, bullying and loneliness.
In “Street Gang,” Ganz Cooney says she enlisted the help of an African American consultant named Evelyn Davis to do outreach work in African American communities before “Sesame Street” was launched. Although having this inclusivity was certainly necessary and thoughtful, it’s clear that in those early “Sesame Street” years, the decision makers at “Sesame Street” didn’t want African American input to include hiring any African Americans in leadership positions for the show.
The closest that “Sesame Street” had to an African American creative executive in the show’s early years was Matt Robinson, who was the first actor to portray the character of Gordon, and he was a writer on the show. Robinson (who died in 2002, at the age of 65) came from a TV background of hosting, writing and producing. Before joining “Sesame Street,” he was the host of the Philadelphia talk shows “Opportunity in Philadelphia” and “Blackbook.” In addition to portraying Gordon on “Sesame Street,” he created and voiced the show’s first African American muppet character: Roosevelt Franklin, which was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975.
Dolores Robinson, Matt Robinson’s widow, remembers her late husband’s contributions to “Sesame Street” as being part of the era when the Black Power movement was blossoming. “These were revolutionary times,” she says. Matt and Delores’ children Holly Robinson Peete and Matt Robinson Jr. have different perspectives, since they were in “Sesame Street’s” target age group when their father was on the show.
Robinson Peete says, “Back then, if your dad was Gordon on ‘Sesame Street,’ that was a big deal.” Matt Robinson Jr. adds, “We looked at the TV, and it still wasn’t registering, like, how did he get in the [TV] box?” Dolores Robinson says of the Roosevelt Franklin character, “For Matt, Roosevelt Franklin represented truth.”
The documentary mentions that the Roosevelt Franklin character wasn’t well-received by many African American parents and educators, who felt that Roosevelt Franklin represented too much of the negative “ghetto” stereotype used by racist people who think black people are inferior. “Sesame Street” got enough complaints about Roosevelt Franklin that the character was removed from the show in 1975, without any explanation to the audience. Matt Robinson stopped doing the Gordon character in 1972, but had stayed on with the show behind the scenes as a writer and to voice the Roosevelt Franklin character. The removal of the Roosevelt Franklin character was apparently one of the last straws for Matt Robinson, and he exited “Sesame Street” in 1975.
After Matt Robinson stopped portraying the character of Gordon, Hal Miller stepped into the role from 1972 to 1974. Miller was replaced by Roscoe Orman in 1974, who has been doing the role of Gordon ever since. Orman says of “Sesame Street” writer/director Jon Stone’s contributions to the show: “Jon was the guy who really created the reality of it—the style, the vision of the show.”
Sonia Manzano, who portrayed the role of Maria on “Sesame Street,” comments on Stone: There were a lot of shows that really talked down to kids. And he didn’t really want that. Jon Stone thought that you could have a kids’ show where adults wouldn’t run for the door as soon as it’s on.” Manzano also recalls that Stone didn’t want her to wear too much makeup on the show, because he wanted Maria to look like a real person, “raw and unpolished.”
Manzano and Emilio Delgado (who portrayed Maria’s boyfriend-tuned-husband Luis) talk about the importance of Hispanic representation on “Sesame Street.” Delgado says that as an actor, “Sesame Street” was the first show in a long time where he wasn’t cast as a criminal or a menial servant, and he was grateful for doing a character that wasn’t about those stereotypes. He says of the Luis character: “He was a regular person! He was part of the neighborhood and he had a business.”
During the first season of “Sesame Street,” the cast members did a 1969 U.S. tour with the muppets and life-sized characters from the show. It was a big success. Bob McGrath, who portrayed the character of Bob on the show, remembers the tour this way: “It was a madhouse.” He gushes about his “Sesame Street” experience: “It was a dream come true to fall into this job.” Ganz Cooney comments on “Sesame Street’s” instant popularity: “I was stunned by the overwhelming support for what we were doing. It was if the world had been waiting for us.”
Well, not everyone was so welcoming. The documentary mentions that certain TV network executives in Mississippi were so outraged about “Sesame Street” having a racially integrated cast that these executives refused to televise the show on their local PBS affiliates for a brief period in 1970. In archival news footage, one of these TV executives (who is unidentified in the footage) denied that the decision was racist and blamed it on community standards. Apparently, these “community standards” were offended by a children’s show with people of different races getting along with each other.
Bob McRaney, the general manager of the NBC affiliate WJDX-WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, broke away from this racist mindset and decided to televise “Sesame Street” anyway. “Sesame Street” got such great ratings for WJDX-WLBT that eventually all the racist TV executives who thought their communities would be ruined if they saw “Sesame Street” suddenly changed their minds and wanted “Sesame Street” on their TV stations. Sometimes greed trumps racism.
Behind the scenes of “Sesame Street,” things weren’t as harmonious as they were presented on screen. Ganz Cooney says that she and Stone clashed with each other. In the documentary, she implies that he might have been envious that she got most of the attention for “Sesame Street’s” success. Ganz Cooney describes Stone as “a very sensitive, difficult man.”
Stone’s daughter Kate Stone Lucas says that her father “battled depression all of his life … ‘Sesame Street’ was the love of his life.” Stone Lucas and her sister Polly Stone say that their father, whom they describe as a civil rights activist, initially wasn’t sold on the idea of doing a children’s TV show because he had become disillusioned with television at that point in his career. Stone Lucas says what convinced him to be involved in “Sesame Street” was Ganz Cooney’s “political vision” to improve the quality of children’s TV, especially for inner city kids whose parents were working while the kids were at home.
Stone Lucas says her father’s personality was that he “saw the world in black and white … You were either a good guy or a bad guy.” He was an iconoclast at heart who resisted being too corporate. One of the anecdotes mentioned in the documentary is that there was an office “push pin” bulletin board that had the words “Children’s Television Workshop,” and Jon Stone would rearrange the letters so that they would spell “Children’s Porkshow.”
The documentary doesn’t have much screen time that gives insight into the creation of the most iconic muppets, such as Kermit the Frog (originally voiced by Henson), Grover (originally voiced by Oz), Cookie Monster (originally voiced by Oz), Ernie (originally voiced by Henson), Bert (originally voiced by Oz), Oscar The Grouch (originally voiced by Caroll Spinney) and The Count (originally voiced by “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles, who is one of the people interviewed in “Street Gang”). “Sesame Street” puppeteer Fran Brill says of Henson and Oz: “Jim and Frank were a comedy team … The dynamic between these two guys was magic.”
Off screen, Henson and Oz were described as opposites who weren’t really friends, but they worked well enough together that they had a special chemistry that translated well on screen. Ironically, Henson’s workaholic ways in children’s entertainment (he was also a key creator of “The Muppet Show”) meant that he didn’t spend as much time with his kids as other fathers did. Jim Henson’s children Lisa Henson and Brian Henson are interviewed in “Street Gang.”
Brian Henson says that it was normal for him as a child to not see his father for three or four days in a row because his father was so busy working. He also says, “My father was a pretty quiet, shy person, but he wanted to be hip. He wanted to be cool. And he wanted his company Muppets Inc. to have a very cool reputation. Children’s entertainment wasn’t what he had in mind.”
Ganz Cooney remembers the first time she saw Henson in a staff meeting, she thought he looked like a hippie and she wasn’t sure how he would fit in with the more conservative-looking employees. But she says that Henson became one of her favorite “Sesame Street” people. “He was terrific,” she says adoringly. The documentary has some archival clips of Henson and Oz, separately and together, behind the scenes and doing interviews.
Spinney (who died in 2019, at age 85) was famously the man inside the Big Bird costume, and he was interviewed for this documentary, which has footage of him with his Oscar the Grouch puppet during the interview. Big Bird was originally conceived as a klutzy character with the intelligence of a teenager or young adult. But it wasn’t long before the character of Big Bird was changed to have the innocence of a child in “Sesame Street’s” target age group of 3 to 5 years old.
In 1982, the real-life death of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street,” was written into the show as Mr. Hooper dying off-camera. Big Bird’s denial about the death was one of the more memorable aspects of this tearjerking episode. In the documentary, “Sesame Street” people who were involved in this episode say that they wanted to keep the show honest by not lying to the audience about why Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back to “Sesame Street.”
Music has always been a big part of “Sesame Street,” which features the human characters and muppets performing original songs and cover tunes. Joe Raposo, who composed the “Sesame Street” theme song and many other tunes for the show, is fondly remembered as a larger-than-life character. His son Nick Raposo says that his father didn’t want to talk down to children in his songs.
Kermit the Frog’s melancholy “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” is mentioned as a song that could be interpreted as a metaphor about racism. The documentary also includes clips from several music stars who made guest appearances on “Sesame Street,” including Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Odetta Holmes. There’s also footage of Jesse Jackson’s well-known “Sesame Street” appearance where he leads a group of kids in a pep talk chant that starts off with repeating “I am somebody!”
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” certainly has plenty of heartwarming moments. The movie also has many good anecdotes and archival footage. But the documentary is very American-centric because it doesn’t really acknowledge the impact that “Sesame Street” has had worldwide. If you believed everything that’s presented this documentary, Americans are the only people worth interviewing about a global show such as “Sesame Street.” (“Sesame Street” is currently available in about 150 countries.)
And the “Street Gang” filmmakers didn’t seem to bother asking Ganz Cooney or any of the other white people from the original “Sesame Street” executive team why a show that they wanted to be aimed at urban African American kids had no African Americans making major decisions about the show in its early years. The documentary doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that the groundbreaking racial integration on “Sesame Street” was just in front of the camera only. Behind the camera, it seems that the hiring practices for the “Sesame Street” original production team weren’t reflective of progessive civil rights after all, even though these are the same people who claim to be passionate about civil rights and racial equality.
“Sesame Street” has a long history, and this documentary’s real focus is what “Sesame Street” did up until the 1990s, when Jim Henson and Jon Stone died. Therefore, the “Street Gang” movie will probably be best enjoyed by people who are old enough to remember “Sesame Street” before the 1990s. It’s a meaningful nostalgia trip for “Sesame Street” fans, but not a completely thorough one for people who want more of “Sesame Street’s” history after the 1990s.
Screen Media Films released “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” in select U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021, and on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is July 6, 2021. HBO and HBO Max will premiere the movie on December 13, 2021.