There’s a lot to like about producer/director Morgan Neville’s moving, 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Neville (who also created 20 Feet from Stardom – see my August 19, 2018 review) interviews just about everyone who knew Fred Rogers– his wife and two sons, his longtime cast and crew on the pioneering PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968 to 2001). Some baby-boomers, their children and their grandchildren grew up on the soothing words of Mister Rogers:
So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day/Since we’re together we might as well say/Would you be mine?/Could you be mine?/Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was pokey enough to be cringe-worthy for adults who wondered how their children could be spellbound by a nondescript, unassuming man in a cardigan, who changed his shoes while singing the same opening song for almost forty years.
Fred Rogers, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the mid-60’s, soon realized that television could be revolutionary and that children’s lives would be impacted by this new medium. Why not offer a show that deals with a child’s feelings–anger, fear, self-esteem, grief–to prepare them for their new world? Mister Rogers proved to be a master at eliciting children’s feelings, and recommending trusting grownups to listen. Daniel Striped Tiger–Mister Rogers’ alter ego in a furry puppet form– tackled the everyday emotional needs of pre-schoolers with respect, honesty, and thoughtfulness rarely seen on television then or now.
What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was. Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated. Without preaching but with integrity and visual connection, Mister Rogers would show by example. Soaking his feet in a kiddie pool with his friend, the African American policeman, Officer Clemmons, demonstrated community in a time of segregated swimming pools.
When cellist Yo-Yo Ma describes first meeting Fred Rogers, he recalls that Rogers put his face three inches from Ma’s while gently smiling at him. “He scared the hell out of me,” says Ma. Rogers did the same thing when he first met the gorilla Koko, who then held his hand and signed that she loved him.
Under Mr. Rogers’ seemingly bland exterior was a true radical. Here was a white middle-aged man inviting everyone to live in his neighborhood, regardless of color. And his cast reflected diversity not yet seen on most shows today.
Almost hagiographical in scope, Neville does reveal one of Fred Rogers’ blind spots. The actor who played Officer Clemmons had been to a gay bar. Rogers soon informed him that if there were any future visits to gay bars, he would be terminated out of fear of losing corporate sponsors. The inclusion and fostering of community revealed in the context of its time was still not universally accepting.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? elevates this classic children’s show and its star to a standard we need to remind ourselves of and recommit to. The unspoken question is: What would Fred Rogers think of a culture congealed into a state of outrage, vulgarity and intolerance? How would we build a neighborhood and live together in an era of proposed wall-building?
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a realistic lens on how a child must make sense of an emotionally complex and sometimes irrational world.
It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows. It’s oxygen: It’s vital, and needs to be nurtured.
When you watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? you don’t see a Republican or a Democrat. Mister Rogers speaks to the fundamental ways we should all speak to each other.
Note: Available on PBS.com and Netflix DVD.