Director: Bradford Thomason, Brett Whitcomb Cast: LeVar Burton, Twila Liggett, Whoopi Goldberg Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 87 min. MPAA: TV-PG

LeVar Burton is one of those PBS figures my generation viewed as a wholesome anchor. While Mister Rogers talked about feelings and Big Bird talked about numbers, LeVar showed us the world and told us about cool books. But he was more than just an actor playing the host of Reading Rainbow. He cared greatly about what he was promoting with such a program. Butterfly In The Sky is a documentary delving into the history and lingering legacy of Reading Rainbow’s production and LeVar Burton’s crucial involvement.

Like many of PBS’s greatest educational programs, Reading Rainbow evolved out of meeting a need for literacy. There were already shows trying to teach reading, but none to get kids excited about reading, where their essential academics could be used for more than passing tests.

This was a primary motivation for co-creator Twila Liggett. Having worked as a teacher, she recognized the problems within the education system and found herself restricted by a rigid academic model. The avenue of television was an opportune moment to address issues with literacy that weren’t being recognized in the classroom. Despite the budget limitations and the uphill battle to get such a show off the ground, Reading Rainbow resonated perfectly upon its debut in the 1980s.

This film reveals many behind-the-scenes facts. Supervising producers Larry Lancit and Cecily Truett express the fervent atmosphere of the production and how tearful it was to bring the show to an end. Composer Steve Horelick not only talks about the process of creating the iconic theme song but also gives a step-by-step demonstration of how that electronic tune was found. Guest star Whoopi Goldberg speaks about how fulfilling it was to be one of the many celebrity guest stars who came on the show to read books. The many kids chosen to do book reviews on the show were also caught up with this film, highlighting their positive experiences being on camera and talking about books.

The documentary is as much about Reading Rainbow as it is about LeVar Burton. We hear about his history as an actor and his career aspirations. Having starred in the TV hit Roots, Burton wanted to focus on roles that meant something more, making Reading Rainbow an obvious choice. Fears loomed that Burton would leave the show when he landed a regular Star Trek: The Next Generation role. It did not. It bolstered the show’s reach, leading to that one fascinating Reading Rainbow episode where Burton showcased the behind-the-scenes production of Star Trek, covering everything from editing to special effects.

As the years went on, Reading Rainbow’s earnest nature grew more mature. Despite the rose-colored glasses some might have attached to it, the show wasn’t afraid to tackle the tougher topics, with LeVar covering homelessness, racism, and the darker parts of history. Even the events of September 11th were not off the table, as in the vital episode where LeVar visited the school closest to the Twin Towers. He interviewed the children on the first few days back at school, getting their perspective on the situation. Burton discovered that kids are more insightful and have a greater sense of their emotions than adults may realize.

Butterfly in the Sky is more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane to Reading Rainbow. It highlights all the inner workings of the show that made a difference in literacy. Keeping the show going for so long seemed like a noble effort, especially LeVar fighting for PBS funding in the 1990s, similar to how Fred Rogers made his case to Congress. Make no mistake; literacy celebrations like Reading Rainbow were met with opposition that still exists today. LeVar not only jumped into this fight but did so with teeth. With the rise in banned books, LeVar had bitten back with a highly amusing Reading Rainbow skit of him getting pissed off at conservatives banning books for the most ridiculous reasons. This isn’t a character and not some societal paradigm shift of politics that has turned this actor against Republicans. This is who LeVar has always been: a fighter for books. Those who grew up with Reading Rainbow knew this; that message should be even more vocal in this documentary. But you don’t have to take my word for it, as LeVar tells you himself with great honesty and conviction to read more books (especially the banned ones).

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