Exploring the creation, lifespan and end of Reading Rainbow, a beloved TV program that ran for 26 years on PBS, Butterfly in the Sky is a strong, affecting documentary that strikes all the right chords.

Starting over a lovely opening animation and the show’s signature theme song, Butterfly guides you through the beginnings of the show and the early decisions that shaped its legacy, starting with hiring LeVar Burton as host.

Then best known as Kunta Kinte in the TV miniseries Roots, Burton was hardly an unknown and perhaps a bigger star than the show’s creators thought they’d land as host. But Burton’s iconic voice, smile and personality would carry the show through its entire run, blazing a trail that would eventually include diverse experiences that ranged from visiting an active volcano and filming a live birth (for a children’s show, no less) to discussing topics like 9/11, gangs, prison and crime, all filtered through reading and a love of learning.

Burton proved to be a driving force in the show’s success, and his contributions are particularly interesting. A particularly fascinating segment of Butterfly in the Sky sees the show’s creators discussing Burton’s interest in “the moment” over a predictable appearance, down to his decisions about hair, grooming and earrings, which came to define the series at large, as well as individual seasons. In a lesser documentary, these discussions could be little more than a chance to show behind-the-scenes drama; here the showrunners admit Burton was right to not want a “consistent look.”

Butterfly also doesn’t shy away from the racial implications of having a Black man host a children’s show in the 1980s and discussing how Burton gave the show much of its unique identity as a program that wasn’t about teaching preschool-level academic skills (like Sesame Street) or social and emotional development (like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) but instead focused on the simple love of reading.

Directors Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb focus on Reading Rainbow’s impact and the key point that the show wasn’t designed to teach, but to inspire. The show featured Burton traveling to locations all over the world, typically to a locale that ties into a spotlighted book, deftly mixing the usual documentary tropes for nostalgic children’s programming: the amiable but resolved host; smart, caring writers and showrunners; an adoring public; and an untimely end.

Here, though, Thomason and Whitcomb breathe new life into the film by bringing up the GOP-led congressional attempt to cut funding to PBS. They particularly pointed to Reading Rainbow as “not an educational show,” but one full of propaganda and working to further the leftist agenda … because certainly reading is all part of the plot, right?

But the irony of it all is that for a show that “has nothing to sell,” it sold a whole lot of it. Sales of children’s books increased 800% during its run, and while it’s difficult to point to Rainbow as the sole factor in that explosion, authors and publishers certainly did value it featuring their books.

The machine did indeed finally get Rainbow, through the metrics-driven measurables of the No Child Left Behind Act, which stressed testing and higher scores. That placed a priority on “teaching the test” rather than letting kids organically develop intelligence, which meant a show about inspiring a love of reading became less important than checking the right box on a form.

But for the 26 years it existed, Reading Rainbow served as a beacon of inspiration, founded on the guiding principle that children want to learn, and that exploration is enriching and vital to healthy development in a way that is safe and empowering to children. Butterfly in the Sky is a worthy celebration of that spirit.

Butterfly in the Sky will screen during the 31st Heartland International Film Festival at:

  • 2:15 p.m., Friday, Oct. 14, at Living Room Theatres, 745 E. 9th St., Suite 810, in Indianapolis
  • 3:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Toby Theater at Newfields, 4000 N. Michigan Road, in Indianapolis
  • 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 16, at Living Room Theatres, 745 E. 9th St., Suite 810, in Indianapolis

Producer Bryan Storkel is scheduled to be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A on Saturday, Oct. 15, and Sunday, Oct. 16.

Tickets are available at heartlandfilm.org/festival.