Review: ‘Breaking the News’ (2024), starring Emily Ramshaw, Amanda Zamora, Errin Haines, Kate Sosin, Andrea Valdez, Chabeli Carrazana and Abby Johnston

June 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Errin Haines in “Breaking the News” (Photo by Heather Courtney/PBS)

“Breaking the News” (2024)

Directed by Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston and Chelsea Hernandez

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2020 to 2022, in various parts of the United States, the documentary “Breaking the News” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) who are connected in some way to The 19th* news media outlet.

Culture Clash: The 19th* experiences ups and downs during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a reckoning about needing more diversity on its staff. 

Culture Audience: “Breaking the News” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a documentary about start-up media groups and news media coverage from a female perspective.

Kate Sosin and Arin McKona in “Breaking the News” (Photo by Heather Courtney/PBS)

“Breaking the News” is a smart and incisive look at the origins and growing pains of The 19th* as a groundbreaking female-centric news media outlet. This documentary is honest about showing that some women have more privilege than others in battling sexism. “Breaking the News” isn’t just about reporters getting news scoops. The movie also offers a realistic look at keeping a start-up company afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Breaking the News” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston and Chelsea Hernandez, “Breaking the News” (which was filmed from 2020 to 2022) begins in March 2020, the first month of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns around the world. The 19th* (which is headquartered in Austin, Texas) was co-founded as a non-profit group by Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora in 2017, as a reaction to Donald Trump being elected president of the United States. The concept was to have a female-oriented news website staffed by women and reporting news that is considered important to women.

The 19th* is named after the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment, which gives women U.S. citizens the right to vote. It’s explained in the documentary that the asterisk in The 19th* signifies that there’s more work to be done for women’s rights in the United States and around the world. When The 19th* began, the staff and freelancers consisted entirely of women. Now, there are a few men and gender non-conforming people who are among The 19th* employees.

Although the leaders of The 19th* say in interviews that this news media outlet is non-partisan, the reality is that the political views expressed by the majority of the staff are undoubtedly liberal—either progressive or moderate. And it seems as if the core audience for The 19th* also has a left-leaning perspective, based on a segment in the documentary showing that The 19th* receives numerous complaints from readers every time The 19th* interviews a politically conservative person. The 19th* publishes original content on its own platforms and syndicates its content to various other media outlets, including The Washington Post.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, The 19th* was in the process of raising another round of funding. Ramshaw (a former reporter with the Dallas Morning News and Texas Tribune) is shown in the beginning of the documentary having a Zoom conference call with Whurley, a well-known investor. He bluntly tells her, “I think journalism is dead.” But he makes this optimistic remark: “All the great startups started under terrible circumstances.”

Ramshaw has the title of CEO of The 19th*, while Zamora has the title of publisher. Both women say in the documentary that they knew at an early age that they wanted to become journalists. Although Ramshaw is shown doing some fundraising responsibilities, her main preoccupation shown in the documentary is managing the growing staff of The 19th* and making executive decisions about the editorial direction of the company. Andrea Valdez, who is also based in Austin, works closely with Ramshaw as The 19th* editor-in-chief until she is replaced by Julie Chen, whose appointment is shown toward the end of the documentary.

As the publisher, Zamora is shown worrying about being able to pay the salaries of The 19th* employees during a time when media outlets are downsizing or having hiring freezes during the pandemic. As a non-profit startup, The 19th* faced its share of challenges that were made more difficult in the middle of an economic downturn. However, 2020 turned out to be a pivotal and breakout year for The 19th*, due to the U.S. presidential election and the worldwide racial reckoning over police killings of unarmed African Americans.

Several editorial employees for The 19th* are shown in “Breaking the News,” but the documentary gives a particular focus on four of these employees: Errin Haines, a Philadelpha-based former Associated Press reporter, is an editor-at-large with a specialty in covering racial issues. Kate Sosin, a former employee of Viacom and NBC, is a transgender reporter covering LGBTQ+ issues. Sosin’s pronouns are they/them. Chabeli Carrazana (based in Orlando, Florida) has an editorial beat covering the economy. Abby Johnston is The 19th*s deputy editor.

One of the biggest criticisms of many feminist groups is that they tend to give the most power and importance to middle-class and wealthy cisgender, heterosexual white women. Ramshaw fits that description. Zamora (formerly of the Texas Tribune) is Latina, but in the documentary, Zamora acknowledges that she has privilege because she appears to look white. There are some scenes in the movie where Ramshaw shows that she’s living in a bubble and can’t really see the perspective of other women who are not in her own demographic.

For example, in May 2020, a video went viral of a racist confrontation in New York City’s Central Park, where an African American bird watcher named Christian Cooper asked a white woman nearby named Amy Cooper (no relation to Christian Cooper) to put a leash on her dog, because it’s the law in New York City to have dogs on leashes when the dogs are in public. In response, an angry Amy Cooper called 911 and falsely claimed that Christian Cooper was physically attacking her. She made a of point of repeating that an African American man was assaulting her.

Haines felt this story was important enough to report to show how some white women can use white supremacist racism as a way to put people of other races, particularly African Americans, in harm’s way with false accusations. In a completely tone-deaf moment with racial overtones, Ramshaw is shown questioning Haines on whether or not The 19th* needed to cover the case in the first place. Without knowing all the facts, Ramshaw wonders out loud if Christian Cooper did anything to provoke Amy Cooper. (When police arrived at the scene, Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper both were not there, but the situation could have escalated.)

Haines (who is one of the smartest and most well-connected people on The 19th* team) patiently explains to Ramshaw that America has a long history of African American people being killed because of false accusations from white women. The story is eventually assigned to Haines, with Ramshaw still being skeptical that it was important for The 19th* to report. Of course, the story ended up becoming huge international news. Later, Ramshaw makes an apology to her staff for her error in judgment and for being so ignorant.

It took this Christian Cooper/Amy Cooper story for Ramshaw to understand the ugly truth that these types of false accusations rooted in racism aren’t just stories about past lynchings but can still happen various ways today. If there had not been a video showing that Amy Cooper was lying, and if the police had shown up during this incident, it’s very likely that Christian Cooper would have been arrested based on a false accusation. “Breaking the News” shows that when an editor in charge of assignments lacks this intelligence or empathy about racial issues, it can negatively affect the type of coverage that the editor chooses to assign.

On a side note, after this Central Park video went viral, Amy Cooper was fired from her job at an investment firm. She was charged with the misdemeanor of filing a false police report. The charge was ultimately dismissed because Christian Cooper decided not to press charges against her, and she agreed to enroll in a racial bias therapy program. Amy Cooper’s wrongful termination lawsuit and appeal have been dismissed by the court system.

Under Ramshaw’s leadership, The 19th* is shown as being not very open to having a diverse representation of LGBTQ staffers. During most of the time that this documentary takes place, Sosin is the only openly LGBTQ employee on staff. Sosin repeatedly asks Ramshaw and other supervisors of The 19th* to hire more LGBTQ staffers, so that Sosin isn’t the only one. Ramshaw is shown making excuses for delaying this inclusive hiring. There’s really no good excuse for it, considering all the cisgender heterosexual women that The 19th* made the effort to recruit.

One of the more poignant scenes in the documentary is when Sosin confesses that when employees of The 19th* were celebrating the website’s launch day, Sosin spent the day at home crying because Sosin felt left out and sidelined for being a transgender person. Sosin is intelligent and a tremendous asset to The 19th* team. It’s really unconscionable that a so-called inclusive media group would take so long to hire more than one LGTBQ+ person to cover LGTBQ+ issues. It eventually happened, but only after Sosin and other staffers had to push for it. Ramshaw made an apology to The 19th* employees about that diversity problem too.

But for every misstep that Ramshaw might have taken, The 19th* had some triumphs. Haines was the first reporter to get an exclusive interview with family members of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American nursing student who was shot to death in March 2020, by white police officers while sleeping in her home in Louisville, Kentucky. The officers claimed it was a case of a mistaken identity because they went to the wrong house during a warrant raid. The 19th* was also the first media outlet to interview Kamala Harris after it was officially announced that she would be Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. Haines got that scoop too.

Sosin was at the forefront of reporting many LGBTQ+ issues, especially in the trans community where health care and crime have disproportionately more devastating effects than for cisgender people. For example, many states have been slashing public health funding for gender affirmation surgeries. And crimes against transgender people are often underreported or often don’t get adequate investigations, compared to crimes against cisgender people.

Sosin’s story for The 19th* about how the pandemic was affecting transgender surgeries ends up being one of the biggest viral stories for The 19th* in that period of time. Sosin is shown interviewing people such at Transhealth in Northampton, Massachusetts, including CEO Dallas Ducar, charge nurse Arin McLona and pediatrician Dr. Drew Cronyn. They all express concerns about how certain U.S. states are starting to make their work more restricted or illegal.

Carrazana tells her personal story about being a Cuban American. She says that coming from an immigrant, working-class family gives her more empathy and understanding in covering underrepresented communities for economic news stories. Almost all of The 19th* employees featured are shown working from home during the pandemic lockdowns.

The movie also briefly shows the personal lives of featured employees of The 19th*, as a way of demonstrating that these are well-rounded people. Ramshaw, Zamora, Sosin and Carrazana are seen with their spouses or partners. Haines is shown having a close relationship with her mother, whom she calls on a regular basis. And most of these employees have adorable dogs, who sometimes amusingly get in the way while the employees try to work from home.

“Breaking the News” includes footage of how The 19th* covered historical moments, such as the 2020 U.S. presidential election; the U.S. Capitol riots that occurred on January 6, 2021; and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade that gave federal protection for abortion. The documentary does not over-simplify or gloss over the real problems that The 19th* has or the mistakes that were made by the company’s leadership. The measure of any group’s future is how it can learn from its mistakes and make improvements.

It remains to be seen how long The 19th* will last. However, “Breaking the News” is an insightful look at the early years of this resourceful news media outlet. It’s not only an inspiring documentary but also a stark reminder that with all the progress made in women’s rights, a female-dominated news media outlet is still a rarity today.

UPDATE: The PBS series “Independent Lens” will premiere “Breaking the News” on February 19, 2024.

Review: ‘Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,’ starring Sonia Monzano, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Rosie Perez, Steve Youngwood, Kay Wilson Stallings and Sherrie Westin

May 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ryan Dillon (Elmo puppeteer), Bradley Freeman Jr. (Wes Walker puppeteer) and Chris Thomas Hayes (Elijah Walker puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days”

Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz

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.

Stacey Gordon (Julia puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

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.

Review: ‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,’ starring Joan Ganz Cooney, Sonia Manzano, Caroll Spinney, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman and Lloyd Morrisett

May 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jon Stone in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Robert Fuhring/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

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.

Caroll Spinney in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Luke Geissbühler/Screen Media Films)

“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.

Review: ‘Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,’ starring Gretchen Sorin, Allyson Hobbs, Craig Steven Wilder, Christopher West, Fath Ruffins and Eric Avila

December 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ben Chaney (center) and his family in the car on the way to the funeral of his brother James in Meridian, Mississippi, on August 7, 1964, in “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” (Photo by Bill Eppridge/Courtesy of PBS)

“Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America”

Directed by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” features a predominantly African American group (with a few white people and one Latino) of academics, entrepreneurs, historians and authors discussing the racial prejudices and challenges experienced by African Americans who’ve taken various modes of transportation, especially cars, in the United States.

Culture Clash: African Americans are often the targets of bigotry, violence or other acts of hate for driving or traveling.

Culture Audience: “Driving While Black” will appeal primarily to people interested in well-researched historical accounts of racial bigotry in America, but the movie lacks perspectives from young people and in-depth coverage of recent “driving while black” controversies.

A crowd attacking cars driven by African Americans in “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images)

There are tragically too many stories, both known and unknown, of people of color being refused service, getting harassed, assaulted or killed because of their race. The documentary “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” gives a mostly somber historical chronology of how race plays a role in the mistreatment of black people who travel by motor vehicle in America. Directed by Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns, the documentary has a very scholarly tone, since most of the people interviewed for the film are academics.

The movie, which has the usual blend of talking heads and archival footage, can come across as too dry and stodgy for some viewers. No one under the age of 50 is interviewed in the movie. And shutting out that youthful perspective is a strange choice for this documentary, because young people are often the most vulnerable and frequent targets of racism for “driving while black.”

Because a great deal of “Driving While Black” is about what happened before the 21st century, “Driving While Black” might also disappoint people who are expecting more current events to be the primarily focus of the film. The movie is told in chronological order, so it isn’t until the last half-hour of this nearly two-hour film that people will see modern examples of racist incidents caught on video, involving African Americans who were harassed in or near their cars and were sometimes killed. News clips and viral videos are shown of these incidents, but the documentary doesn’t try to investigate or reveal anything new.

In other words, don’t expect to see any groundbreaking insight into some of the most notorious “driving while black” incidents that are widely described as racist because of controversial police actions against Rodney King, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Richard Hubbard III or Jacob Blake. All of these incidents stemmed from these unarmed African Americans being stopped by police while in or near a car. The documentary has brief snippets of video clips from these incidents but doesn’t interview anyone involved.

Even though the title of the movie is called “Driving While Black,” the documentary actually covers all major forms of transportation (except airplanes) and how transportation pertains to racial bigotry. The movie begins with an overview of how Africans were captured and brought to America in ships as slaves in the 1600s. “Think of the trauma and the terror and the violence of that forced mobility,” comments Stanford University historian Allyson Hobbs.

The movie covers how white racists who want to control where and when African Americans could go is a shameful part of American culture, harkening back to the slave days when slave owners would viciously beat or kill slaves for not following orders on where the slaves could or could not go. Controlling and limiting a slave’s movements were obvious ways to keep them in captivity. Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian Craig Steven Wilder comments on this slavery era: “Right away, you have some elements of racial profiling, from the very beginning of the black experience in America.”

And after the Emancipation Proclamation freed U.S. slaves in 1883, many former slaves were left homeless and their mobility was limited by the types of housing that was denied to them by white racists. The Reconstruction Era after the Civil War gave way to a backlash against racial progress, and the Jim Crow era made racial segregation legal in the U.S. until the Civil Rights Act in 1964 outlawed it. Part of the American Dream includes ownership of land, which is a dream that is all too often denied to people because of their race.

Carolyn Finney, author of “Black Faces, White Spaces,” comments: “Land isn’t just about land. It’s about political and economic power, the power to choose. It’s about the freedom to move freely in space.”

The documentary covers the Great Migration during the Jim Crow era, when many African Americans from the South migrated North and West for better opportunities in housing and employment. Kathleen Franz, a historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, comments that lynchings of African Americans in the South fueled a lot of this migration. But even though many U.S. states outside of the South during the Jim Crow era technically didn’t make racial segregation legal, that didn’t mean that racism didn’t exist outside the South. Many African Americans and other people of color still came up against racial barriers all across America during the Great Migration.

It’s stated many times throughout the documentary that for most white people, taking a road trip means a fun-filled vacation. For many African Americans, taking a road trip can be fraught with danger. That’s because it’s part of African American culture to know, usually through first-hand experience, that being black means you will experience what it’s like to be questioned, stopped, harassed or attacked in places where you’re minding your own business and not breaking the law—just because someone might decide that you don’t belong there because of the color of your skin. The movie doesn’t say that it can’t happen to other races in America, but rather that this type of racism is more likely to happen to black people in America.

“Driving While Black” co-director Sorin is one of the commentators in the movie. She says in the beginning of the film: “Mobility is essential to freedom. I think the automobile is emblematic of the importance and the value of mobility in free society. But it also goes beyond mobility and allows us to understand the way that African Americans have moved forward in this country and the way that African Americans have been pushed back.”

Cars are usually a status symbol, so African Americans who drive luxury cars are often held under more scrutiny on the road than white people who drive the same cars. And even fame and money can’t make a black person immune to this racism. Many highly paid black celebrities have gone public about being pulled over by the police for “driving while black” and doing nothing wrong.

African American contributions to the auto industry are included in the film. Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson notes that black people have often been tasked with doing the most dangerous jobs in auto factories, such as working foundries where steel was forged or lifting engines. And unfortunately, black neighborhoods are often targeted for destruction, as highways and freeways were and still are frequently planned to be built though these neighborhoods, forcing many of the residents to move. Writer/filmmaker Lois Elie comments on how a neighborhood’s racial population and property values are always factors in construction of highways and freeways.

As black people in the Jim Crow era started to have more access to cars, it became important to know which businesses and areas were safe for people of color on road trips. There were several guide books, such as “Smith’s Guide,” “Grayson’s Guide” and the most well-know one of all: “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which was first published in 1936 by its creator Victor Hugo Green, an enterprising African American entrepreneur who had no previous publishing experience.

The documentary includes an interview with real-estate salesperson Howard Glener, whose father took a chance on Green to print the first editions of the book, which many other white publishers refused to print. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” (which inspired the Oscar-winning 2018 movie “Green Book”) was widely distributed, with Esso gas stations being one of the publication’s main distributors.

As historian Hobbs mentions in the film, road trips for black people during the Jim Crow era had their pros and cons. On the one hand, the road trips gave black people more freedom and mobility. (These road trips were often to look for work or to visit family members.) On the other hand, Hobbs says that road trips gave black people more “exposure to more violence, indignity and humiliation.” Travel guides such as “The Negro Motorist Green Book” certainly helped many road travelers, but it could never cure the cancer of racism.

Not all of “Driving While Black” is about the doom and gloom of racism. One of the great things to come out of these travel guides was the sense of community that developed between businesses that welcomed black customers during the Jim Crow era when other business refused to serve black people. The Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans is mentioned as one of the more well-known establishments that was a haven for black people during the Jim Crow era. And several African Americans began to build their own upscale communities, such as Lincoln Hills, Colorado. Nancelia Jackson, a Lincoln Hills resident, calls it a “country club for black people.”

Dooky Chase’s, an African American-owned restaurant in New Orleans was one of the businesses that was in the travel guides listing safe places where black people could go during road trips. The documentary includes interviews with Dooky Chase’s owner Leah Chase and her daughter Stella Chase Reese (the manager of Dooky Chase’s) who offer their perspective and fond memories of the community of customers that the restaurant has had over the years. However, Chase laments that a lot of that community started to fade away after racial integration, because she says that wealthier black people began to gravitate to businesses owned by white people.

Cars played an important role for black people during the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, when people were boycotting public transportation (such as buses and trains) that were racially segregated. Many civil rights activists organized carpools in their communities. Wilder comments, “It’s a wonderful way of thinking of how black people deployed the automobile to challenge Jim Crow.”

During the documentary’s last half-hour, there’s some discussion about how smartphones and social media have helped expose the types of racial profiling and racist police brutality that have been committed against black people who are driving or on the road. Fath Ruffins, a curator/historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, compares this media exposure to when the civil rights movement was broadcast on TV in the 1960s: “Something similar is going on today, where people who are not African American have begun to see, ‘Wow, there is really a tremendous difference in what driving around America and being black is than the average white American.'”

But being exposed to these racial differences and wanting to do something about racial injustice are two separate things. Jackson says that there is “widespread indifference or complicity by whites” in police violence against black people who are pulled over in traffic stops. Pasadena City College historian Christopher West gets emotional and tears up when he talks about the fear and sadness that he has for his children and other black children who have to get “the talk” about how to act when they’re being racially profiled. “Driving while black means driving while afraid,” West says with heartache in his voice.

Other academics interviewed in the documentary include Herb Boyd, historian and author of “Black Detroit”; film director /George Manson University Professor Spencer Crew, who is interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University. And other interviewees include Alvin Hall, creator/host of Driving the Green Book podcast; Walter Edwards, chairman of Harlem Business Alliance; Candacy Taylor, cultural documentarian/author of “Overground Railroad”; Jennifer Reut, historian/founder of Mapping the Green Book Project; Gary Jackson, a Denver County court judge whose great-grandfather co-founded Lincoln Heights; Five Points business owner Mae Stiger; journalist Tamara Banks; and Alison Rose Jefferson, historian/author of “Living the California Dream.”

People who already know a lot of African American history probably won’t discover many new facts that they didn’t already know if they watch “Driving While Black.” However, the documentary offers a lot of intelligent and thoughtful commentary, as well as important archival material (photos, videos and audio recordings) to give a deeper understanding of this history. Some of the archival material includes recordings and interviews with people who lived through the Jim Crow era.

Overall, “Driving While Black” is recommended for anyone who wants a broad historical context for why so much racial injustice is still happening in the United States. “Driving While Black” co-director Sorin wrote the 2020 nonfiction book “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights,” and this documentary can be considered a visual companion to the book. Just like the book, the documentary is a sobering declaration that the history of racism continues to repeat itself.

PBS premiered “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America” on October 13, 2020.

Review: ‘The Windermere Children,’ starring Thomas Kretschmann, Romola Garai, Tim McInnerny, Iain Glen, Tomasz Studzinski and Kacper Swietek

April 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Windermere Children,” pictured from left to right: Anna Maciejewska, Tomasz Studzinski, Lukasz Zieba, Kuba Sprenger, Marek Wrobelewski, Jakub Jankiewicz, Pascal Fischer and Kacper Swietek (Photo courtesy of PBS)

“The Windermere Children”

Directed by Michael Samuels 

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1945, shortly near the end of World War II, the drama “The Windermere Children” is based on a true story of how a group of Jewish orphans who survived the Holocaust are brought to a group home in England to start new lives.

Culture Clash: The orphans experience difficult recoveries from their trauma, as well as anti-Semitism from some of the local residents.

Culture Audience: “The Windermere Children” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in stories about orphans or Holocaust survivors.

Thomas Kretschmann (standing) in “The Windermere Children” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

Most stories about Holocaust survivors tend to be about what their lives are like years after World War II ended. But the dramatic film “The Windermere Children” (which is inspired by true events) tells the story of what happened in August 1945, shortly near the official end of World War II, when a group of about 300 Jewish orphans were brought from continental Europe (many were from Poland) to an estate in England as refugees. Because almost all of the children did not have relatives to claim them, the orphans had to start new lives in England.

Almost all of the children survived concentration camps and are going through severe trauma. They arrive by bus to Calgarth Estate, which is located by Lake Windermere. The estate has been turned into a group home for the children, whose transition and rehabilitation will be aided by a group of counselors and volunteers. Leading this group is German psychologist Oscar Friedmann (played by Thomas Kretschmann), whose specialty is child psychology.

Other people who are part of the team are athletic coach Jock Lawrence (played by Ian Glen); art therapist Marie Paneth (Romola Garai); philanthropist Leonard Montefiore (Tim McInnerny); and married couple Georg Lauer (played by Philipp Christopher) and Edith Lauer (Anna Schumacher). Friedmann used to run an institution for troubled boys in Germany, but nothing quite prepares him for what he will experience with these orphans.

“The Windemere Children” (Michael Samuels and written by Simon Block) shows the somewhat chaotic and anxiety-filled arrival of the children by bus (one boy vomits on Mr. Montefiore as soon as he’s greeted by Montefiore), but then the teenagers who will be the main orphan characters in the story start to come into focus. (The ones who get the most screen time and backstories are the boys.)

Arek Hershlikovicz (played by Tomasz Studzinski) is a lanky, pimple-faced rebel. He shows an early romantic interest in Sala (played by Anna Maciejewska), who becomes his girlfriend. Icek “Ike” Alterman (played by Kuba Sprenger) is a bit of a charming flirt, and he finds out soon upon arriving that he’s attracted to an English girl. Schmuel “Sam” Laskier (played by Marek Wrobelewski) is a sorrowful loner. Ben Helfgott (played by Pascal Fischer) is a superb athlete, who quickly becomes a favorite of Coach Lawrence.

Chaim Olmer (played by Kacper Swietek) had assumed the identity of a boy named Ephraim Minsburg in order to survive, and the alias has stuck, but Chaim now wants to be known by his real name so that his sister can find him. Salek Falinower (played by Jakub Jankiewicz) is another loner, and he’s more likely than Sam to separate himself from the rest of the group. (He has to be gently coaxed by Friedmann to get out of the bus.) Salek is convinced that he will be reunited with his missing brother Chiel someday, even though everyone keeps telling him that there’s almost no chance that Chiel has survived.

Because most of the children have been through the trauma of concentration camps, their healing and rehabilitation are emotionally tough on them. The younger children who lived out on the streets are inseparable. During a walk in the woods, they are terrified by the presence of a small dog being walked by a local woman. The children run off and hide and have to be searched for by a counselor.

Another scene in the movie shows how something as simple as putting bread on the tables in the dining hall can spark a feeding frenzy, as the children grab the bread and run to their rooms to either eat the bread quickly or hide it from others. Eventually, the children learn that food at the orphanage is plentiful and they don’t have to act like paranoid scavengers and hoarders in order to get a meal.

Medical exams are also filled with anxiety and sometimes bad news. Many of the children are malnourished and recovering from physical abuse, such as beatings, whippings and burns. It’s not uncommon for them to have missing or decaying teeth. And the children also have to be de-loused. The clothes they arrived in are also burned, which is symbolic of them leaving their previous lives behind.

It’s while the children are being de-loused outdoors that they have an unpleasant encounter with some of the local residents. A group of boys who are in the same age group watch from afar and try to taunt them. Arek sees that the local boys’ reactions are out of fear and ignorance, so he approaches them, covered in de-lousing powder and extends his hand as if to give a handshake. One of the taunting boys tentatively takes Arek’s hand, but instead of shaking the hand, Arek pulls the terrified boy into the de-lousing shed. The other local boys run off and leave their bicycles behind, which some of the orphans gleefully steal.

Stealing becomes a habit for some of the orphans, and they are lectured not to do it by their elders at the orphanage. Meanwhile, the orphans are taught English and are encouraged by Ms. Paneth to paint their inner thoughts, without instruction rules or judgment on technique. It’s welcome therapy for many of the children, but one disturbing portrait by a child brings the art teacher to tears. And, as the movie shows, the children have constant nightmares and can be heard screaming and sobbing throughout the night.

During a trip to a local ice-cream parlor, the kids experience more anti-Semitism when the same group of boys who previously tried to taunt them show up at near the shop and give a Nazi salute, Friedmann than shames the boys by telling them that these children’s families were slaughtered. The boys sheepishly walk away, but the Jewish orphans see that anti-Semitism is everywhere, even in a country that fought against the Nazis in World War II.

Meanwhile, Coach Lawrence, a Scotsman who oversees the boys’ soccer playing, tries to toughen them up by telling them that people in the “real world” won’t care about them being Jewish refugees and they can’t use it as an excuse to get special treatment. Privately, Lawrence tells Friedmann that it might be time to start placing the kids into foster homes, in order to improve the strained relations between the locals and the refugees. Some of the locals are very open about their resentment that the estate land and taxpayer money are helping fund the refugees at the group home.

The most devastating part of the movie is when the Red Cross arrives to bring news about the orphans’ families. Most of the children had been holding out glimmers of hope that someone in their family would still be alive. But the news is as bad as expected. Arek is so emotionally wounded to find out that his entire family has been murdered the he verbally lashes out at Donna, and it puts an enormous strain on their relationship. There is a bright spot toward the end of the movie, which won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that this happy moment is a testament to the power of hope.

The epilogue of the film takes a similar approach to what “Schindler’s List” did at the end: It shows some of the real-life  survivors returning to the place depicted in the movie, along with flashbacks to the actors who portrayed them in the movie. The real-life Windermere children who give comments at the end of the film are Arek Hersh (who changed his last name from Hershlikovicz), Chaim “Harry” Olmer, Ben Helfgott and Schmuel “Sam” Laskier and Icek “Ike” Alterman.

“The Windermere Children” is an emotionally powerful film (although by no means as harrowing and masterfully made as “Schindler’s List”) that tells an important part of the Holocaust refugee story. The film’s cast members give solid performances, but the movie is heavily slanted toward the male perspective of these children’s experiences, while the female perspective isn’t given as much importance. There’s a one-hour documentary called “The Windermere Children: In Their Own Words,” which is worth watching for a more balanced gender representation and for more testimonials from the survivors. The documentary is a great complement to this dramatic film’s version of their story.

PBS had the U.S. TV premiere of “The Windermere Children” on April 5, 2020. BBC Two had movie’s U.K. TV premiere on January 27, 2020.

Review: ‘The Rescue List,’ starring Stephen Kwame Addo, Peter Samuel, Edem Akpalu and Teye Adi

March 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Stephen Kwame Addo in “The Rescue List” (Photo courtesy of Collective Hunch)

“The Rescue List”

Directed by Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink

Twi, Fante, Ewe, Ga, Ada and Efutu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the area around Ghana’s Lake Volta and featuring an all-African cast, the documentary “The Rescue List” follows a grass-roots group of child-welfare advocates and the children they’ve rescued from modern-day slavery.

Culture Clash: The group faces opposition from the slave masters and has an overwhelming task of rescuing thousands of child slaves in the area, as well as rehabilitating them.

Culture Audience: This compelling movie will appeal primarily to people who have an interest in issues about human rights and social justice, but the disturbing subject matter might make it difficult for some people to watch.

Peter Samuel (front row center) and Edem Akpalu (front row, far right) in “The Rescue List” (Photo courtesy of Collective Hunch)

Slavery and human trafficking are tragically still happening in the everyday lives of an untold number of people around the world. The emotionally raw but ultimately inspiring documentary “The Rescue List” takes an unwavering, up-close look at a grassroots group in Ghana called Challenging Heights that runs a children’s shelter, rescues children from slavery, rehabilitates them, educates them, and then places the kids into homes that pledge to keep the children safe.

Challenging Heights, which is not funded by the government, includes rescue-group leader Stephen Kwame Addo, who used to be a child slave until he escaped, found a safe place to live, and got an education. Challenging Heights also includes social workers Bernice Jaama Akromah and Peter Kwesi Smyth, who help the kids recover from their trauma with therapy. The children who leave the shelter for permanent homes get follow-up monitoring for two years by the group’s social workers.

According to some sobering history and statistics presented in the film: “In 1965, foreign mining companies built a hydroelectric dam on Ghana’s Volta River, creating the largest man-made lake on Earth. Traffickers began to pay families facing extreme poverty to send their children to the lake for short-term work. But the children often disappear. There are now an estimated 20,000 children enslaved to fishermen in remote regions of Lake Volta.”

In addition to suffering abuse, children who’ve become fishermen’s slaves often get trapped with fishing nets and die. And, of course, many of these children are prevented from going to school because they spend most of their waking hours doing slave work.

“The Rescue List” focuses on three of the boys who’ve been rescued: Peter Samuel, who was 17 at the time the documentary was filmed; Edem Akpalu, who was 12 during filming of the movie; and Teye Adi, Peter’s best friend who was 14. At the beginning of the movie, Peter and Edem have already been in the shelter (their rescues are not part of the movie), while Teye’s rescue is shown in the documentary.

In addition to being a rescuer, Addo (who goes by his middle name Kwame) is a de facto private investigator. He and his team spend an untold number of hours finding the necessary information to put on their “rescue list,” which includes the names and locations of suspected slave masters and the children who are enslaved. Addo describes his mission to rescue child slaves as “a calling.”

The movie shows Addo scouring Lake Volta for children to rescue, and it’s clear why he is often successful at his mission: He approaches children who appear to be fisherman slaves with a calm and friendly demeanor that allows them to trust him in a short period of time. Because many of the children are brainwashed into thinking that rescuers will harm them, he immediately assures them that he’s taking them to a safe place where they won’t have to spend long hours fishing anymore. Most are happy to be rescued, but one boy in the film is terrified, and tries to swim away when Addo approaches him and offers him an escape from his life of misery. (The boy eventually goes with Addo and his team.)

Peter and Edem have a story that is common with these children who are sold into slavery. Their mothers were the ones who let them be trafficked, and their slave masters often abuse and starve the kids to do what they want. Peter is a friendly kid but his rescuers notice that he’s distressed because being rescued meant that he had to leave his best friend Teye behind. Peter feels guilty about it and asks the group to rescue Teye.

Meanwhile, Edem, who is shy and insecure, is dealing with the trauma of losing his best friend Steven in a drowning accident. In therapy sessions, Edem describes Steven as someone who supervised him and was a protector who never abused him. During an especially poignant scene, two of the social workers take Edem to the beach and tell him to say a prayer and talk to Steven. Edem’s soul-baring prayer might bring tears to some people’s eyes.

The rescue of Teye is tense, but not violent. It resembles the negotiation of a hostage release. As Teye leaves with Addo, a woman shouts from a nearby house, “My investment is lost!” Teye’s reunion with Peter is one of the most heart-warming moments of the film.

But even after they’ve been rescued, the children still experience a lot of anxiety, because many face an uncertain future, especially if no family members claim them. Peter and Edem do have family members (including their mothers) who come to visit them in the shelters and want to take them home. The movie doesn’t judge Peter’s and Edem’s mothers for essentially selling their children into slavery.

But “The Rescue List” does show the very real emotional damage that these decisions caused, as now the mothers and children are virtual strangers. It’s clear from the guilty and tearful reactions of the mothers that coming home for these boys will not be an easy emotional journey. Although it’s never openly discussed in the documentary, they will all have to come to terms with what whatever they feel about forgiveness and emotional healing. Peter is old enough to decide if he wants to live with his mother or with a village elder who has offered to raise Peter. The documentary shows his decision.

Not all of this documentary is depressing. The shelter’s children (who are almost all boys) are shown to be well-adjusted to their surroundings. And they have a camaraderie that’s evident when they play soccer or when they gather in recreation room to watch TV or a movie. (One of the movies they watch with fascination is “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” the 1980 South African comedy about how the discovery of Coca-Cola bottle set off a chain of events for an African tribe.)

“The Rescue List” directors Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink take an observational yet empathetic approach to their subjects by allowing them to tell their stories without the annoying interference of voiceovers or talking heads. Although it’s certainly a relief that these children have been rescued, the movie doesn’t least viewers forget that not everyone is that fortunate and there will always be a need for groups like Challenging Heights.

PBS premiered “The Rescue List” on its “POV” series and on on March 23, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation’

April 30, 2019

by Carla Hay

“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” (Photo by Elliot Landy/The Image Works)

“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation”

Directed by Barak Goodman

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legendary 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, PBS commissioned a documentary about the event, which is often credited as being the most influential concert festival in history. Emmy-winning director Ken Burns was announced as the documentary’s director, but he left the project. The documentary ended up in the very capable hands of director Barak Goodman, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated documentary “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” and the gerrymandering documentary “Slay the Dragon,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Of course, this PBS “Woodstock” documentary and any other movie about Woodstock will be overshadowed by director Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 “Woodstock” documentary epic, which is still considered the definitive chronicle of the event. However, Goodman’s “Woodstock” (which has plenty of concert footage from the festival) stands as a solid companion piece. Whereas the original “Woodstock” movie was essentially a concert film, this PBS “Woodstock” documentary attempts to fill in a lot of the behind-the-scenes blanks, much like bonus commentary does on a home-video release.

There has been so much that’s already been written, said and reported about the original Woodstock Music Festival that there is not much new information to uncover. The festival—which took place August 15 to August 18, 1969, in Bethel, New York—was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.” (The concert ended up extending into the morning hours of a fourth day.) The lineup was a who’s who of many of the biggest names in music in the late 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival (who were not in the original “Woodstock” documentary), Sly and the Family Stone and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The concert was originally expected to attract about 50,000 people. Instead, approximately 400,000 people showed up and made it an unprecedented cultural event, despite the overcrowding, food shortages, drug-induced freakouts, downpours of rain, safety issues and the underlying threat that the government might shut down the concert.

“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes a chronological look at the challenges and problems that the festival encountered, told mostly from the perspective of the festival’s organizers and attendees. There are only a handful of artists (including David Crosby and Richie Havens) interviewed for this documentary. All of the new interviews for the movie are voiceovers, which was a wise artistic choice, since video cutaways to talking-head commentators would just distract from the movie’s intentions of transporting viewers back to the Woodstock Festival.

The four people who are given the most credit for being the founders of the Woodstock Festival are John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang. Roberts (an heir to the Poligrip/Polident fortune) and Rosenman were the producers who put up the money for the event. It was through Roberts and Rosenman’s New York-based Media Sound company that they met Kornfeld and Lang, who both came from music backgrounds. Lang was the only one at the time who had experience as a concert promoter. All of them are interviewed for the documentary, as are other key members of the original Woodstock team, such as director of operations Mel Lawrence and Stan Goldstein, a campground coordinator who researched portable toilet needs for the event.

The opening-day party for Media Sound morphed into the idea of putting on an all-star outdoor festival named Woodstock, much like the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California. The city of Woodstock in upstate New York wasn’t actually available, but the idea was to have the festival in a sprawling area in the region, since the urban density of New York City wasn’t an option. Lang was adamant about having the festival in a grassy area, not at a raceway.

The Woodstock promoters originally chose Wallkill, New York, for the concert site. But when Wallkill’s city officials realized that their city would be overrun with hundreds of thousands of hippies and other counter-culture people, they voted in an ordinance to prevent gatherings of more than 5,000 people, thereby canceling Woodstock’s permit. Fortunately, an unexpected hero stepped in to save the festival: a conservative Republican named Max Yasgur, who donated his farm in Bethel for the concert site. Within two days, the city of Bethel approved the permit, and Woodstock was revived, but the festival had to scramble to create the stages and other infrastructure in time for the event. They didn’t have enough time to do a thorough job, and many aspects of the festival’s production were incomplete by the time the festival began. It’s repeated many times in the documentary that Woodstock was under-staffed and under-stocked. Needless to say, because most of the overcrowded festival’s attendees got in for free, Woodstock’s investors lost a lot of money because of this event.

Ironically, Lang’s Woodstock Ventures faced similar financial and legal issues for its Woodstock 50 concert, which had been announced to take place in Watkins Glen, New York, from August 16 to August 18, 2019. At the time of this writing, Woodstock 50’s main investor pulled out (citing concerns about overcrowding and safety), a permit for the festival hasn’t been issued, and tickets haven’t even gone on sale. The concert industry is very different today than it was in 1969, so there probably isn’t enough time to clear all the legal hurdles that Woodstock 50 is facing in order for this 50th anniversary concert to happen.

One of the best things about this PBS “Woodstock” documentary is that it really shines a spotlight on many of the unsung heroes who worked behind the scenes at the original Woodstock Festival—the people who slogged through it from beginning to end. The artists on stage got most of the glory, and most of the celebrities didn’t mingle with the (sometimes literally unwashed) masses in the crowds. The big stars who attended Woodstock also had the luxury of leaving behind the messiness of Woodstock by helicopter, since the festival had traffic jams and roadblocks during the entire event.

Food for Love was a three-person operation that made a huge but underrated difference at Woodstock. The group was hired on relatively short notice, because the original food contractor for Woodstock backed out of the event after Wallkill canceled the festival’s permit. When the food supply at the festival began to run dangerously low, Food for Love, with the help of numerous volunteers, stepped in to help feed people and even gave away a lot of food for free—something that would be unheard of in today’s over-priced festival environment. (According to the documentary, a lot of people “paid” for the free food by giving marijuana joints to the people handing out the food.) Yasgur, who died in 1973 at the age of 53, also provided a lot of the free food from his farm, which inevitably became a garbage-filled disaster area after the festival was over. Milk, oats and rice became welcomed and common nourishment at the festival.

The documentary interviews hippie icon Wavy Gravy, who stepped in to emcee at Woodstock and brought his Hog Farm community to the festival as unofficial security. The Hog Farm called themselves a “please force” instead of a “police force.” Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm were instrumental in keeping the crowds calmer than they could have been, given the high levels of drug use at the concert. Speaking of drug use at Woodstock, the documentary mentions that the festival was perhaps the first major concert event to have a massive amount of “freak-out” tents, where people tripping out on drugs could go to ride out their experiences. The tents were a necessity, given that medical assistance was also in short supply.

Another aspect of the festival that would be unthinkable today was the lack of adequate communication coming in and out of the festival. Because Woodstock happened decades before smartphones and the Internet existed, the festival had to make news announcements on stage, since most attendees did not have on-site access to radios, TV and newspapers. In addition, announcements were made on stage for festival attendees to contact frantic loved ones or friends who were looking for them. At the festival’s information center, attendees had to pin notes on the walls to get messages to other attendees. It’s hard to imagine today’s generation of young concertgoers being able to cope with these conditions.

Through testimonials of several attendees, the documentary de-mystifies the image of Woodstock being a blissful “peace and love” party. Yes, there were numerous people who had a good time and have fond memories of Woodstock, even if many of those memories were clouded by whatever drugs they were on at the time. But partying at Woodstock wasn’t the whole story. The reality was that most of the attendees had inadequate food and shelter, and things got worse when the festival was hit with rainstorms that caused a lot of disgusting mud. The rain could have caused electrocutions on stage, but fortunately did not.

In addition, government helicopters were constantly hovering, as if ready to step in and treat the festival like a war zone. Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York state at the time, kept threatening to send in the National Guard. Speaking of war, the documentary mentions that many of the male attendees of Woodstock were afraid of being drafted into the Vietnam War, so the hovering military helicopters that caused a lot of noise and discomfort probably didn’t help their nerves.

Of course, the best part of the festival that gets the most recognition and the highest praise is the music. The artists who are mentioned the most as being standout acts at Woodstock were Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Crosby Stills & Nash (who did their second public performance as a group at Woodstock) and Santana. In the documentary, Woodstock Festival opener Havens remembers that he didn’t want to be Woodstock’s first performer on stage, because the concert started late, and he thought the crowd would be angry. (He ended up getting a standing ovation.)

Although this “Woodstock” documentary could have used more artist interviews, they might have overshadowed the testimonials of the non-famous people in this documentary who spent a lot more time at Woodstock than the artists did. In the end, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” is a deeper dive into the harsh realities behind the festival. The documentary may not have a lot of new information, but it’s recommended viewing for people who want more of the real story of what happened behind the scenes.

PBS/American Experience Films will releaseWoodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” in New York City on May 24, 2019, and will expand the release to more U.S. cities on June 7, 2019. PBS will premiere “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” as part of the PBS “American Experience” series on August 6, 2019.

PBS Kids launches ‘Ocean Friends Forever’ with ‘Splash and Bubbles’ series to celebrate World Oceans Day

June 5, 2017

The following is a press release from the Jim Henson Company:

(Photo courtesy of the Jim Henson Company)

The Jim Henson Company, Herschend Studios and PBS Kids are kicking off “Ocean Friends Forever,” a social media and community engagement initiative with multiple PBS station events across the country the week of June 1-8, to coincide with the internationally celebrated World Oceans Day on June 8. The effort is themed around the new PBS Kids series “Splash and Bubbles,” which encourages children to explore ocean science and marine biology. “Splash and Bubbles” airs daily on PBS stations nationwide and is available for free on PBS Kids digital platforms.

Awareness of the ocean and its diverse inhabitants continues to be an important necessity for us all. Few people realize how much we have left to discover about the animals, plants and unique habitats under the sea. In fact, a recent online omnibus study* of 1,000 adults provided some surprising results. Over thirty-seven percent of respondents believed that more than half of the world’s ocean has been explored, but scientists and researchers estimate that only 5 percent of the ocean has been explored! When asked if they know where most of the white sand on the world’s beaches comes from, only 6 percent of respondents knew the surprising fact: parrotfish poop. Parrotfish ingest dead coral and break it down into sand, which they then excrete. (Nearly two-thirds of respondents thought that white sand beaches are mostly comprised of rocks. Thirty percent answered glass.)

PBS stations across the country are gearing up to educate their community about the vast underwater world, with “Ocean Friends Forever” activities and materials for their summer events including screenings, activity pages, hands-on investigations, Splash and Bubble character appearances and more! Activity pages and hands on investigations are also available on PBS Parents/SplashandBubbles.

Event Dates:


Birch Aquarium at Scripps (KPBS – San Diego)


WFSU Studio (WFSU – Tallahassee)            


WFSU Studio (WFSU – Tallahassee)                           


NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher/Kure Beach, NC (UNCTV – Raleigh/Durham             


Challenger Learning Center (WFSU – Tallahassee)


Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (WOSU – Columbus)


Bayou County Children’s Museum (LPB – Louisiana)


Children’s Museum of Acadiana (LPB – Louisiana)


Children’s Museum of Lake Charles (LPB – Louisiana)


Louisiana Children’s Museum (LPB – Louisiana)


Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (WHUT – Washington D.C.)    


Webster Public Library (WXXI – Rochester)


Charlotte Library Branch (WXXI – Rochester)

Additionally, “Help Our Kelp,” a new digital game at, will encourage kids to help a kelp forest stay healthy by cleaning invasive species, like sea urchins and clams, from the environment. The game will be available online and on the free PBS Kids Games app later this week.

PBS Kids series “Splash and Bubbles” encourages children to explore the natural undersea world and features endearing and humorous characters on fun-filled adventures. Utilizing the dynamic CG animation technology of the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, each episode introduces kids ages 4–7 to the adventures of its title characters – Splash, a yellowback fusilier fish, and his friend Bubbles, a Mandarin dragonet.  Splash migrated all over the ocean before settling down with his family in Reeftown.  Now, he and Bubbles explore the world’s ocean, meet wildly diverse marine animals and discover otherworldly undersea habitats with their friends Dunk (a pufferfish) and Ripple (a seahorse). Together, they bring back what they’ve learned to share with their neighbors.

“Splash and Bubbles” is a production of The Jim Henson Company and Herschend Studios. The series is executive produced by Lisa Henson and Halle Stanford of The Jim Henson Company, Julie Phillips and Merrill Puckett-Miller of Herschend Enterprises, as well as John Tartaglia, Michael Shawn Lewis and Jill Shinderman. The series is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

PBS ‘Chefs Flight’ spotlight in ‘American Masters’ includes documentaries on James Beard and Jacques Pépin

April 13, 2017

by Carla Hay

PBS is launching “Chefs Flight”as part of the network’s “American Masters” series that will include new documentaries on culinary icons James Beard and Jacques Pépin.

“James Beard: America’s First Foodie” premieres in most market on May 19, 2017, at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. (Check local listings.) The program chronicles a century of food through the story of Beard (1903-1985), who was a pioneer celebrity chef and author. Immediately after the Beard documentary, PBS will televise a rebroadcast of “American Masters – Julia! America’s Favorite Chef” at 10 p.m. ET.

Meanwhile, “Jacques Pépin: The Art of Craft” (narrated by Stanley Tucci) premieres in most markets on May 26 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. (Check local listings.) Immediately after the Pépin documentary, PBS will have an encore presentation of “American Masters – Alice Waters and her Delicious Revolution” at 10 p.m. ET.

According to a PBS press release: Among the many highlights in the Beard documentary are Daniel Boulud and restaurant critic Gael Greene telling how Beard helped start Citymeals on Wheels; Jacques Pépin reminiscing about cooking with Beard; Martha Stewart sharing how Beard’s cookbooks influenced her; Ted Allen disclosing Beard’s challenges being an “out” gay man at a time when same-sex sexual activity was illegal; chefs Jonathan Waxman and Larry Forgione reflecting on Beard’s mentorship and its impact on their career; Wolfgang Puck recounting how he helped found the James Beard Foundation; Alice Waters explaining how Beard discovered Chez Panisee; chef Jeremiah Tower offering insight into Beard’s relationship with Marion Cunningham; chef Naomi Pomery demonstrating how to make the famous “James Beard’s Onion Sandwich”; and next generation chefs such as Marc Forgione, Greg Higgins, and Pomeroy discussing how Beard’s influence is still felt today. James Beard Award Foundation president Susan Ungaro and executive vice president Mitchell Davis also appear in the documentary.

Dubbed the “Dean of American Cookery” by The New York Times, Beard … spoke of the importance of localism and sustainability long before those terms had entered the culinary vernacular. He was a forerunner of the farm-to-table movement and helped create the iconic Four Seasons concept and menu. He was the first chef to host his own television show, “I Love to Eat,” which debuted on NBC in 1946, and taught not only women but men how to cook. He also had a cooking school that he operated out of his New York apartment.

Beard authored 22 cookbooks, penned a syndicated newspaper column and wrote countless magazine articles. He is credited with introducing Julia Child to the New York culinary scene, and he later becoming a best friend to her.

The James Beard Awards Gala and Reception are considered the “Oscars” of the food-service industry. The 2017 ceremony will take place  May 1 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Jesse Tyler Ferguson is hosting the show. The complete list of nominations are here.



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