Movie review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

The documentary Won’t you Be My Neighbor? covers the TV career of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers devoted himself to the early education and development of children. He was a staple in the lives of young children for several decades.

The documentary starts with Fred Rogers dipping into the new medium of television with The Children’s Corner, a program run out of Pittsburgh. Rogers was dismayed at what TV offered children—slap stick comedy and pies in faces. Instead, he wanted to explore how television could be used to enrich children’s lives. During these early days, he developed the various puppets and their personas that would live on in the future children programming that he did.

On the side, Rogers attended seminary but sought the world of children as his mission area. After several years, he started the program he is best known for and that informs the title of the documentary: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The neighborhood was depicted as a safe place and Mr. Rogers as a welcoming adult. (The title of the documentary comes from a line in the opening song to the show.)

In the era in which the show aired, children were still to be seen and not heard. They were treated as non-entities, non-beings with no feelings or thoughts of their own. Rogers rejected that view. He treated each child as important. He talked to them directly and he listened. Mr. Rogers was everything that adults weren’t. He was patient. He spoke slowly. He explained things. He waited for children to ask all sorts of questions. And then he answered them.

He realized that children take in everything around them. When the world ignored children in times of tragedy, he reached out to them. He knew they were affected by events and needed to be talked to, listened to, and reassured.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood started around the time that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was understandably a time that rocked the nation, but children were left out, trying to make sense of what happened on their own. Instead, Mr. Rogers, through the use of his puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asked drew them into the conversation. Daniel asked about the meaning of assassination. An actor on the show took his question and feelings seriously. Daniel was allowed to talk about the feelings he had—and told that he could talk or ask questions at any time. This was kind, caring reassurance for kids who felt that something terrible had happened but they didn’t understand or knew how to process it.

In 1969, Mr. Rogers ended up in a Senate hearing concerning funding for PBS. PBS was about to get its funding slashed and no one who had appeared in front of the Senate was able to convince the panel to do otherwise. The documentary shows Mr. Rogers patiently talking to the Senator in charge of the funding who listened and credited Mr. Rogers with earning PBS $20 million that day. The funding for PBS was saved, thanks to Mr. Rogers patient explanations and listening.

The neighborhood was a safe place for children and in some ways a progressive place. During times of segregation, the neighborhood had a black police officer who would stop to visit with Mr. Rogers. On one occasion, they cooled off their feet in a children’s swimming pool, sharing a towel to dry them with Mr. Rogers helping dry the policeman’s feet—a nod to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This scene was a direct response to the attempts and pushbacks to integrate swimming pools.

All was not completely rosy. Mr. Rogers was not always as progressive as I would have liked. The documentary recounts how he warned this same actor, who was seen at a gay bar, that he could never go to a gay bar again and continue to work on the show. The reason: sponsors would pull out. In the late sixties/seventies, the US was not prepared for openly gay actors—and neither sadly was Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers tried to take his philosophy of building relationships through communication and listening to an adult audience. He took a hiatus from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to record 20 episodes of Old Friends…New Friends. But the show did not take off. I never heard of this program and would love to see it.

It is sad to think that Mr. Rogers’ approach with children that met universal needs of acceptance was not something that adults responded to. Perhaps adults are too used to a hectic fast-paced world to be able to slow down to Mr. Rogers’ speed. Mr. Rogers did not talk or move at a mile a minute. He realized the power of slowness and even silence, how it allows for listening, understanding, and mindfulness of life.

He returned to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with themed episodes. He was distraught by the way children were tricked by advertising and marketing—child died trying to fly like Superman does. Mr. Rogers started by discussing superheroes and then make believe, conflict, death, divorce—any issue that affects children where they need to be heard and need to understand what is happening.

He came back again after 9/11, unsure what message to bring, but if the nation needed words from anyone, it was Mr. Rogers. He was the one who listened and reassured us when we were kids. Now we are adults but our world was rocked in ways we hadn’t experienced before.

The documentary stresses how Mr. Rogers was the same on screen or off. He was the real McCoy—a genuine caring individual who took the time to listen to everyone he met. By example, he showed us all how to interact with each other and how to act in what may be uncomfortable situations. He touched so many lives. The documentary includes interviews of his two sons and his wife. As one son mentioned, it was hard having the second Christ as a father.

The little things made me smile. I loved Mr. Rogers using his puppets to interact with groups of kids. Daniel Striped Tiger in particular was his alter ego and allowed him to reach out further to kids than he could as himself. Daniel gave the kids love and acceptance and they gave him love back. (It would have been awesome to hug Daniel Striped Tiger!)

I also loved learning about the significance of 143. Mr. Rogers was an avid swimmer and would weigh himself after each swim, smiling when he saw 143 on the scale (his consistent weight for most of his life). Why would 143 cause delight? As Daniel Striped Tiger explained, 1 is the number of letters in I, 4 the number of letters in the word love, and 3 the number of letters in you: I love you. His weight was God’s or the universe’s way of saying I love you to Mr. Rogers.

I hated hearing about how he came under attack in later years. His message that all have value, all are special, was perverted. Critics blamed him for creating generations of adults that feel entitled. But his message wasn’t that people were special and therefore entitled. His message was that everyone had inherent value just because they are themselves, a very Christian message.

I hated too his feeling of being overwhelmed by 9/11 and not knowing how to calm the world. It was painful to see him film his last episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (good thing I was long past childhood when that happened in 2000). And of course, it was hard dealing with his death in 2003.

Thank God for Mr. Rogers and the gifts he shared with the world. He knew that everyone longs to be loved. And he set out to teach children to love themselves and their community. We are richer for Mr. Rogers. We could use him right about now.

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