Won't You Be My Neighbor
In the breakout documentary of the summer Won’t You Be My Neighbor , one of the first pieces of interview footage that we see of TV icon Fred Rogers is a clip of him recounting his worry of not being able to connect with children. Funny enough, that same sentiment almost stopped me from watching this film. In today’s sociopolitical climate, we are encouraged -- and in some cases, forced -- to grow up as soon as possible. The ability to reconnect with childhood and relive those moments of innocence, joy, and having an unbridled faith in the world around you is lost on many of us. As a six-year-old burdened by anxiety over my home life and making friends, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of the few mediums through which I was able to access those kinds of moments. However, I was not sure if the man that played such an important role in my childhood would be as compelling to watch now as he was back then. Fortunately, Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) proved me wrong.
Fred Rogers was born into upper-class, Christian, well-educated, white male privilege. Throw in the fact that he was a Republican to boot, and it becomes downright mystifying that a man with more in common with Donald Trump than some of his most loyal supporters became a universal symbol for a “radical kindness” that helped children of all ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses learn to love themselves. In the top-grossing biodoc, we are first introduced to Rogers as a young aspiring minister who realizes that his true calling is actually a more unconventional -- at least, at the time -- type of ministering. Despite not having grown u watching TV, Rogers jumped headfirst into creating, producing, and even recording his own music for a show that he would go on to use as his pulpit for ministering to children on the importance of accepting yourself as well as others for the next three decades. Over the course of 90 minutes, Neville fills us with nostalgia for a simpler time when a song from Lady Aberlin or a story from Mr. Rogers himself could captivate and inspire children without the aid of flashy VFX or dangerous stunts.
However, Rogers did not shy away from difficult topics. In the early 1960s, Black people were being terrorized everywhere from public schools to pools, as seen in the cringeworthy footage of a white motel manager pouring acid into a pool full of black guests. The episode in which Mr. Rogers shares a pool with Officer Clemmons, the first African American to have a recurring role on a kids TV series, was a form of protest art that actively and explicitly taught anti-racism to young children, a feat that not many other children’s TV shows -- past or present -- have accomplished. In 1968 our nation was jolted by the assassination of Senator Bobby Kennedy. Lady Aberlin’s explanation of the word “assassination” to Daniel the Tiger in an episode that addressed the untimely death of one our country’s budding political heroes was another fascinating instance in which Mr. Rogers candidly, yet gently taught children about the ills of the world and how to cope with them.
Despite chronicling the life of the nicest man on Earth, Neville used honest conversations with the people who knew Rogers best — his wife and cast mates— and a little help from a cartoon version of Daniel the Tiger to portray the good, the sad, and the slightly close-minded. One of the most beautiful revelations of the film is that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped Mr. Rogers as much as it helped his young viewers when it came to finding emotional well-being. Clips of the show’s main puppet Daniel the Tiger as a cartoon are interspersed throughout the film, serving as reenactments of what Rogers might have been like as a child. Daniel wonders about his bedroom looking alone and unsure of himself, giving us a more physical representation of the feelings his puppet character emotes in his famously heart-wrenching duet with Lady Aberlin about feeling like a mistake. We later discover that Daniel is based on Rogers, who struggled with self-esteem as a child. By bringing Daniel to life in these animated asides, Neville gives Rogers a new level of depth and vulnerability that goes beyond the amicable sweater and reassuring countenance that he is known for.
Like many other men who do not fit the stereotypically masculine, assertive archetype of their gender, Rogers was often rumored to be gay. Ironically, he forced Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons) to keep himself closeted out of fear that the show’s ratings or production funding might be compromised. The juxtaposition of Rogers teaching children how to love themselves with his coercing Clemmons to hide himself is a hard pill to swallow. Still, it is an honest reflection of our society’s struggles with tolerance and how dedicated Rogers was to maintaining his beloved-by-many show -- albeit to a fault.
When Rogers passed away in 2003, he left behind a nearly 30-year legacy that still resonates with people across the world, both young and old, as evidenced by the tears pouring out of every single person’s eyes when I went to the theater to see this film. In a time where the turmoil in our politics, workplaces, and schools seems never ending, we need Won’t You Be My Neighbor to remind us of the radical kindness that Fred Rogers taught us to not only treat others with, but also give back to ourselves.