'Won't You Be My Neighbor?': Mister Rogers' clarion call for kindness
As I watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, the documentary about children’s TV icon Fred Rogers, rumbling subwoofers from a neighboring theater bled into the room. The irony and metaphor were not lost on me: Rogers drew, and kept, youngsters’ attention with a gentle, reassuring voice, purposely engineering his program as counterpoint to the hyperactive cartoons and pie-in-the-face clown shows prevalent on the tube. In one scintillating segment of his show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he loosed a turtle to crawl across the floor of the set in real time, an act of brazen, almost absurdist, defiance.
The documentary, from director Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for “Twenty Feet from Stardom”), depicts Rogers as a tireless advocate for kindness and acceptance. It’s a reasonably straightforward biography, chronicling Rogers’ upbringing, his background in the seminary, and eventual success in the business of public television. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” ran on PBS for 31 seasons, with 912 episodes airing between 1968 and 2008. Most any child of the era knows him as a calm host with an earnest smile who, every day, changed his shoes and sweater, sang gentle songs, and told stories with puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Neville uses a treasure trove of archival footage - Rogers died in 2003 - and interviews with friends, family and former co-workers to tell the story. But humming beneath the surface is the simple, direct and poignant message he repeated like a mantra: “You are a very special person… and people like you for exactly who you are.” His words struck a deep, resonant chord with his audience, whose hearts still hum with them today.
The plain-and-clear substance of his lessons is a tonal template for Neville’s film, rendering it a deep, earnest experience. Context is key: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” arrives at a time of ideological divide, when interpersonal respect and civility wages war with contemptuousness in daily headlines. Does the hypercurrent world need Mister Rogers? Would he even be able to make a difference? The film paints him as unwavering in his belief in the tenets of decency - he’s probably one of the most patient people in history of our species - so maybe.
In hindsight, he boldly offered simple, but never simplistic, truths to children, using great insight to acknowledge and understand their delicate, developing minds. He famously had his star puppet, Daniel the Striped Tiger, ask, “What does assassination mean?” in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 murder. He addressed death, divorce and the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster in special episodes. He defied the nastiness of racism, inviting the show’s policeman character, played by African-American actor Francois Scarborough Clemmons, to share a foot bath with him, while the nightly news reported on ugly clashes over segregation at swimming pools.
However the mildly hagiographic tone of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” it addresses Rogers’ flaws with a light touch. Clemmons, who was gay, explains how Rogers encouraged him to stay closeted, using his high-profile job as a kids-TV actor as an excuse; Clemmons otherwise praises his employer and co-star as a good friend with pure intentions. Rogers’ two sons talk about how their father would scold them in his TV-puppet voices; one says it was “a little tough for me to have the almost second Christ as a dad.”
Of course, nobody’s perfect, not even Mister Rogers - a reminder that one of our great struggles is accepting the unavoidable hypocrisies inherent in the human condition. Some have cynically criticized him for telling children that they are, to paraphrase “Fight Club,” unique and beautiful snowflakes, but to do so is to look at the Mona Lisa and only see paint on a canvas. His message wasn’t one of entitlement, but of kindness and quiet strength, of endurance through adversity. Seeing him placidly talk children through some of life’s unavoidable times of suffering is profoundly moving. It’s easy to see why audiences have reacted so emotionally to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, considering how it not only addresses the nostalgia of a generation, but also arrives at a time when neighborliness is a significant daily challenge.
‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and language
Director: Morgan Neville
Run time: 94 minutes