I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood but didn’t quite understand how extraordinary both it and its host, Fred Rogers, were until I saw Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Neville, who previously documented the 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley in his film Best of Enemies, set his sights on a different kind of communicator, one less obsessed with scoring against his enemies than with teaching young people how to grapple with the world around them.
Fred Rogers, who died in 2003 at the age of 75, was an ordained minister who used television as his pulpit for more than forty years. He was the unlikeliest of TV personalities: a soft-spoken man who never wore a funny suit or took a pie to the face. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and swam almost every day. Although there have always been rumors about him – that he was a Navy SEAL, a closeted homosexual (or worse) – anyone looking for this documentary to dig up dirt will be disappointed. There was no difference between Rogers as he was on screen and off. Rather than function as a straightforward biography, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? wisely focuses instead as a primer on Rogers’ philosophies, and how they affected people for the better.
While it’s become tiresome to call the latest work of art “the story we need right now” as we deal with the horrors of Donald Trump’s administration, Fred Rogers wouldn’t object to interpreting this film that way because he used his show that way too. Each episode analyzed current events through detours to the Land of Make Believe, ruled by King Friday the Thirteenth, and populated by puppets like Henrietta Pussycat and Daniel Tiger, almost all of whom were voiced by Rogers. In the show’s third episode, aired in 1968, King Friday wanted to build a wall in the Land of Make Believe because he was afraid of change. Although he meant for this allegory to be about the Vietnam War, the contemporary relevance of it hits even closer to home now. When Bobby Kennedy was shot, he did an episode teaching kids what assassination was. Even the children’s programs that are as influential as this one, like Rocky and Bullwinkle, could never be expected to achieve the nuance and depth of feeling created by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood .
Although he was a Republican his whole life, Rogers would most certainly have voted for Obama and Hillary Clinton, and probably even John Kerry. One of the most moving through lines of the whole film concerns François Clemmons, the African-American singer who played the character of Officer Clemmons. In the early 70s, when white motel owners tried to kick black residents out of their swimming pools, Rogers invited Clemmons to share a wading pool with him. Clemmons remained a regular on the show for most of its run but felt hurt that Rogers would not let him be openly gay, as it would affect their sponsorship. However, as time went on, Rogers grew to accept Clemmons’ homosexuality, with Clemmons even referring to him as a father figure. Like all great thinkers, Rogers was capable of change, something that today’s Republicans cannot bring themselves to do.
Critics of Fred Rogers often paint him as a real-life Barney the Dinosaur, who, by teaching every child that they were special, encouraged them to be self-entitled brats. But Neville and the talking heads who populate the documentary make it clear that that was not the case. His message resonated because by addressing their problems, he taught them that it was OK to have these feelings because everyone else had them too. To him, kids weren’t “special” in the way a Hallmark card would tell them they are; they were special because they each had the ability to love and be loved in return.
But even Rogers himself didn’t always feel up to the task of spreading this message. Protecting his legacy became a primary motivator towards the end of the show’s run, as he became more aggressive in addressing his critics, but even he had doubts that he was going about it the right way. 9-11 devastated him, and although he filmed a PSA encouraging people to do good, you can sense behind his words a need to hide his true feelings. Perhaps he should’ve delivered it as Daniel Tiger, widely regarded as his alter ego.
By the film’s end, you’ve realized how Rogers became one of the most skilled communicators to ever use the medium of television. It’s easy for people like me, raised on social media, to think that the only way to get our message across is through sheer outrage in the form of a tweet or an angry facebook rant. But in reality, empathy and compassion are what’s required to make change happen, and Fred Rogers used television to convey those feelings. Rogers would make it seem like he was talking directly to you about whatever it was you were feeling.
Even though he’s been gone for 15 years, the timelessness of his messages allows him to speak to our current state of affairs. See this film and be inspired by the legacy and the lessons he left behind. And bring tissues. I assure you, you will need them.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.