A few years ago, Morgan Neville won an Academy Award for 20 Feet From Stardom, a soulful, uplifting documentary about background singers, people we literally hear every day, but who never grabbed the spotlight for themselves, for any number of reasons. Seeing Darlene Love sing “His Eye is On the Sparrow” as Neville and the producers accepted their Oscars was one of the highlights of the evening. It wasn’t just that he put together a good documentary, but the fact that in a wide sea of troubles, he was able to make us smile, and sing, and love some people we knew of, but didn’t know on a really deep level.
With that in mind, it seems only natural that he would now tackle the life and career of Fred Rogers, one of the most beloved children’s entertainers of all time. Just as before, the beauty of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is in the things many people didn’t know about Mr. Rogers. Like the backup singers in Stardom, he didn’t necessarily reach out for the spotlight, but when he got his shot, he made the most of it, and never let go of his ideals, both personally and artistically.
I’ll fully admit, I cried a couple of times. Part of it was pure nostalgia. Like millions of others I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS, and even though it’s been years, the moment the film began and we got the show’s theme song, I was mouthing along to the words as if I was a small child again. That’s part of the allure, and one of the major themes of the film, the fact that Fred Rogers never truly let go of his inner child, and thus was able to connect with children on a level few others could even attempt. But in between all the smiles and sobs, and even though Rogers has been dead for 15 years, he still has poignant lessons to teach us in our latest maelstrom. And honestly, it’s just so wonderful to see positive documentaries again. They’ve been in short supply for a while now.
Going all the way back to the late 1950s, when Fred Rogers was pursuing his seminary education and ordination and his wife was the host of The Children’s Corner on WQED in Pittsburgh, the film asserts two very important themes. One is that Rogers had an instant rapport with children because he treated them as equals. The other is that given the wild and beautiful imaginations of children, he knew that a lot could be created from the simplest of elements.
By the time his show rolls around, he’s already had a massive impact. He’s used puppets, he and his wife have written songs, and he’s ensnared the attention of children in ways other television shows couldn’t do, even those targeted at young children. If there’s one flaw to be had with the film, it’s that it lumps all other children’s programming into “idiot box” mode, with massive commercialization, violence, and crude humor. Thankfully, these asides are brief, and the few times we see Rogers himself parodied, he seems to take it with gentle good humor (or his friends and survivors tell us as much).
Fred Rogers was always someone who appeared to be outside of modern times, and not just because of the indoor/outdoor shoes and the cardigan sweaters. Imagine if someone pitched his show today. “So it’s an ordained minister and lifelong Republican who wants to get really close to kids and teach them how to love themselves.” Let’s just say it probably wouldn’t go over too well. He was perfect for his era – I mean, this is the same time that shows like Hogan’s Heroes could get sold on the premise of a Nazi POW camp that’s a comedy! – but the simplicity of his message, his demeanor, and his show overall, made it such an enduring presence, that even as the world around him changed so dramatically, he was always the same, and always felt natural.
It’s amazing to me how much his lessons still resonate and have deep meaning even in today’s society. The film shows an episode from the program’s first week on the air, where King Friday – as an avatar for Fred’s feelings about the escalating Vietnam War – puts up a giant wall around his castle. Sound like someone we know? Of course, the only way to get him to change his mind is to send him messages of peace attached to balloons, which he initially thinks is an attack. King Friday XIII had this weird ability to eventually adapt his positions based on rational thought and evidence. I miss that…
The point where I first lost control of my tear ducts came when the show explored the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. The show had only been on the air for a few weeks, and now these children had to understand why their parents were sad and afraid. Fred used Daniel Striped Tiger, his first puppet on any show, to channel the confusion and the fear, and I temporarily lost it. Daniel was always my favorite, because as a bullied kid who was scared of the world around me, Daniel was the one who always seemed to get it. When Mr. Rogers used Daniel, it felt like he was talking directly to me. I never wanted to hug a sock puppet more in my life. Imagine the good he could do today, helping children cope with all the horrible shit going on in the world, particularly school shootings and babies being literally ripped off their mother’s nursing breast before being thrown in a cage at the border. We need Daniel now more than ever.
Daniel also serves a really good artistic purpose in the film. Peppered throughout the proceedings are small, animated segues using Daniel as an avatar for Rogers, representing his own childhood insecurities. The light and shading in these bits adds even more perspective to the stuff we already understand. It’s not a necessary enhancement, but it’s an appreciated one.
There’s a lot of badness and hostility in the world, and Rogers was a pure force for good. The longtime singing policeman Officer Clemmons was an example for racial integration and tolerance. What blew my mind was learning that Francois Clemmons was gay, and that sadly, due to sponsorship concerns, he could never be out on the show. There are clips of pundits (particularly the societal barnacles on Fox News) blaming Fred Rogers for “entitled” millennials and “snowflakes” who think they’re special and deserve to have the world handed to them without any effort.
Ignoring the fact that many of these detractors were themselves born into wealth and had to make minimal effort for their successes, it is a case of criminally missing the point if that’s the conclusion you draw. Mr. Rogers never set out to declare everyone as “special” to the point that no one would be (that’s Syndrome’s job, assholes – Incredibles 2 review coming soon!), it’s that he was teaching children that as human beings, their mere existence carries with it some form of inherent value. And if you can’t even understand that basic degree of civility and decency, well, then you get elected President.
It’s a sad reminder that we don’t have someone like Fred Rogers around anymore to help fight this ongoing battle against hatred and fear, and even then, “fight” isn’t really the right word. He was a lover, not a fighter. He was a sage, and a an ear, and a voice, and a shoulder to cry on. The fact that he did all this without EVER making it about evangelizing or proselytizing is even more impressive. He was certainly a man of faith, but what good is any of it if you’re not taught to be a basic, good, loving person? It’s a lesson this country sorely needs right now.
Yes, this film is an unabashed tearjerker, but it also has a purpose and a poignant message that we all need in our lives these days. We can’t go back to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, but there are certainly things we can do to brighten our own neighborhoods. And it’s always a beautiful day for a neighbor.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you remember watching Mr. Rogers as a kid? When was the last time you stuck your hand up a puppet’s tuchus? Let me know!