There is a vital new documentary out in theaters right now called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The movie, which charts the television career of Fred Rogers (known affectionately as Mister Rogers), is a much-needed balm of human empathy and kindness in these times of conflict and division.
I was surprised to learn that when he passed away in 2003, Rogers’ funeral was met with protests. People were critical of the fact that he accepted homosexuals. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. People will find any reason to be upset these days, and the truth is that Mister Rogers gave them plenty of reason to be.
His message – the core of his life philosophy – was radical, in much the same way that Christ’s message in the Bible was radical. Love. Love yourself. Love one another. Just love. The movie doesn’t shy away from drawing that comparison to Jesus, although the way it is done is perfectly calibrated and non-patronizing. “It wasn’t easy being raised by the second Christ,” one of Rogers’ sons jokes. The line draws laughs at exactly the right moment.
Up until that point in the movie, I had in fact been thinking that Rogers was something of a saintly figure, and I was suspicious. I think a lot of people would be suspicious today; it’s practically a rarity to find genuine kindness in a stranger, much less a stranger in show business. The man advocated for serious television programming aimed at children that addressed the complexities of childhood. He tackled issues like death, divorce, bullying, self-doubt, and assassination.
He took children seriously at a time in the 1970s and 80s when children’s programming was mostly mindless entertainment. He was a pioneer in the field of early childhood development and mass media. Of course, he never saw himself that way; when faced with compliments about the power of his reach in the popular culture, Rogers simply stated: “I don’t see it that way.”
By the mid-1980s, shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (of which there were few) were a dying breed. Where Rogers valued silence and thoughtful introspection (in one episode, he put on an egg timer and sat silently to show his young viewers how long a minute is), television programming, in general, became flashier and louder. The dominant editing style changed in favor of quicker cuts. Kids’ shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, ThunderCats, and DuckTales soared in popularity.
The crude sets and low-production values of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood paled by comparison. While slime was being dumped on people’s heads on other programs, Mister Rogers was using sock puppets and watching turtles crawl across the floor. It was educational, and it was gentle. There’s a Zen-like quality to the program, a sort of unadulterated sense of wonder and appreciation for the simple pleasures of life.
What surprised me watching director Morgan Neville’s documentary feature was how moving Rogers’ story is. Here is a man who loved people – black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor. Rogers’ cast members and crew, some of whom are interviewed for the movie, fondly recall how he brought out the best in each of them with his simple, unforced humor and compassion.
In an astonishing moment of television history, Rogers incorporated a skit where he invites the mailman, played by an African-American actor, to sit next to him and take a respite from the hot day by soaking his feet in Rogers’ plastic kiddie pool. It may seem like an insignificant gesture to audiences today, but in 1969, it had an edgier significance. The public swimming pool, among other public places, had become a hot battleground of racial segregation. Neville shows old archival footage of white segregationists pouring muriatic acid into a pool of black bathers. The movie title, which is taken from the opening theme of the show, becomes an invitation to be our best selves and to treat one another with dignity and respect.
It’s fascinating and inspiring to see a principled man navigate the messy waters of modernity and stay true to his beliefs in human goodness. This is what acceptance looks like. This is how we get along. I’m not ashamed to admit that I spent most of the movie wiping my eyes. Ultimately, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a triumphant movie. It’s about the dedicated and constant force of love in a world plagued by fear and hatred.
Watching the movie, you can’t help but wonder what Rogers would make of the state of our world today. And you miss him. Whether you watched his show or not (I did not watch it growing up), you realize the need for more people like Rogers. One of the most heartening lines from the documentary comes when one of his friends asserts that “there are lots of people out there like Fred Rogers,” and you want it to be so.
You hope it is so.
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