Many kids who grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the 1960s and ’70s or many years later in syndication found a sense of joy and perhaps even empowerment from Fred Rogers’ hybrid of entertainment and education presented in an endearingly kind manner. As adults, they may have relegated the TV show to the annals of childhood memory or aspects of their formative years that need no revisiting. Yet as the world of the 21st century has gotten progressively darker and more cynical, and allowed less and less room for innocence, Rogers’ quotes have been popping up via memes intended to offer a coping mechanism in the face of tragedy. Documentarian Morgan Neville’s new film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, shines a refreshing light on the work of a man whose mission and messages are revealed to have been not only revolutionary at the time but still highly relevant and remarkably powerful today.
The film is principally composed of excerpts from Rogers’ various television programs, especially Mister Rogers; archival interviews with him; new interviews with his wife, children and co-stars; and an animated framing device featuring Daniel Tiger, a puppet that Rogers often used as a surrogate for conducting sensitive conversations with children. The documentary covers a bit of the life of Fred Rogers — including the facts that he had suffered numerous serious ailments as a child; he was an ordained minister; and he was a disciple of child psychologist Margaret McFarland.
However, the film mainly focuses on his work, which centered on educating children about the world and, above all, championing the notions that it is important to love one’s neighbor and to love oneself. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss notions like these as common Sunday school stuff, but to experience the messages through the production of a visionary writer, composer, puppeteer and personality — without a religious context — makes them infinitely more special.
Furthermore, the man is shown to have practiced what he preached. Since talented and intelligent and public people who are genuinely good-hearted souls are rare, people have a tendency to doubt or mock the legitimacy of a would-be saint. Here, through the testimonies of his family and co-workers and the unflinching conviction he demonstrated in his interviews, it seems quite clear that Rogers was, indeed, almost a saint.
When he first observed television programming, Rogers was put off. Through the technology, he saw the opportunity to forge a community out of the entire country, but he found that most shows were violent or of a lowbrow nature. Children, as audience members, were either pandered to or catered to as potential consumers, but rarely treated with dignity or respect. Following the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy (June 6 is the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination), Rogers contended that children were sheltered from such realities to the point that they missed important life lessons that they were just as capable of dealing with as adults, so he addressed the issue through a special show dedicated to the topic.
In a powerful moment, Daniel the tiger asks Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin), “What does ‘assassination’ mean?” Lady Aberlin then sadly explains the concept to Daniel and helps him put it into context, and the two commiserate, taking comfort in each other’s friendship and support. It is in this and similarly affectionate ways that Rogers is shown to address a number of sensitive topics, ranging from kids with severe disabilities to bullying, divorce and racism. All this was revolutionary at the time, and desperately needed, when such conversations were ignored and kids dealing with such issues were shamed as outcasts or worse.
Rogers consciously chose to feature kids and performers of many races. Moreover, he provided specific imagery in efforts to counter racism and quell the disconnect between police officers and African-American citizens. François Scarborough Clemmons, an African-American opera singer, was cast in the role of Officer Clemmons; during a particularly poignant moment, following archival footage of white people attacking black people who are in a community swimming pool, a clip of Mister Rogers is shown wherein Rogers and Clemmons both dip their feet in the same kiddie pool, while Rogers looks into the camera as if to say, “Do you see that? This is acceptable behavior.”
Viewers also are shown a glimpse of Rogers as a champion of public broadcasting. In 1969, President Nixon wanted to cut $10 million from the public broadcasting budget (of $20 million), and Rogers was one of many people pleading their case to the hard-nosed chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications, John Pastore. Through a five-minute impassioned address, in which Rogers explains his work, he gets the grumpy and impatient senator to do a 180 on his position, laud Rogers with praise and grant public broadcasting the full $20 million that had been proposed by President Lyndon Johnson.
Neville’s film rekindles the sense of joy and purpose that children could connect to with Mister Rogers; only now, with a concentrated overview on Rogers’ objectives and accomplishments, the subject’s legacy seems almost mythic, and were it not for the archival footage, the story would sound too good to be true. In fact, some of the events that unfolded after Rogers' death, including controversy at his funeral (during which protestors angry with Rogers' tolerance of homosexuality gathered across the street from the funeral home), demonstrated that not everyone could relate to his message that all people are unique and all people are special. Despite this, and despite Rogers’ own insecurities and admissions that he didn’t think he had done anything remarkable with his work, it is unlikely that audiences will leave theaters without having shed a few tears and without having been made to feel a genuine sense of love — for Rogers and for themselves.