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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” went off the air on August 31st of 2001. It seems like a tragic coincidence that the world would become a much darker place only a week and a half later. There are now people of legal voting age who never knew a world without 9/11, and never knew a world with Fred Rogers on TV. That feels wrong somehow.

Though I know for a fact that I saw “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in my very early preschool years, I don’t have any firsthand memory of the show. For me, Mr. Rogers was like Sesame Street, but without the artifice. Like the Peanuts Gang, but without the corporate sheen. Like Calvin and Hobbes, but without the cynicism. He was this incorruptible piece of childhood that all of us shared and recognized in each other. Regardless of race, social class, political leaning, or any other way we might be divided, the knowledge and memory of Fred Rogers would be enough to bring us together in some small way.

Fred Rogers was more than an icon — he was something that every decent person could agree was off-limits. We live in an age of naysayers, in which nobody is immune from scandal and the internet has made it easier than ever to discover and distribute dirt (real or imagined). But nobody could ever stick any dirt onto Fred Rogers, and all the rumors about tattoos and Navy SEALs were only urban legends. Maybe he really was a totally spotless saint, but I always found it more likely that few had the heart to try hard enough.

A sad but significant part of growing up is in realizing that our parents and teachers and heroes are only human. Looking for flaws in something — or someone — seemingly perfect is how we act as educated voters, responsible consumers, and functioning adults. As such, I can understand the innate urge to learn about the fallible and flawed side of Fred Rogers, not to disparage him but to know and love him better as we all come to see the flaws and weaknesses in our own parents.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a documentary detailing the life and times of Fred Rogers, the ordained Presbyterian minister who changed the lives of countless children and revolutionized public broadcasting through his timeless TV show. It was a very unlikely hit, and the movie explains why in great detail. The production value was basically nonexistent, most of the characters were cheap puppets, Mister Rogers himself (to put it charitably) was an unlikely star, and the whole show was resolutely stuck in a lame and frankly ugly 1950s aesthetic.

Yet somehow, there’s no denying that it worked. And there’s really no explaining why, except that Fred Rogers — the man at the center of it all — never pretended to be anything he wasn’t. So who was Fred Rogers?

Well, the movie spends a fair bit of time explaining how young Rogers had suffered through pretty much every childhood illness in the book. He was constantly bedridden, with nothing but his imagination to keep him company. His other great emotional outlet growing up was in music. As Rogers’ widow explains, they both grew up in a generation of kids who couldn’t express anger. They couldn’t complain or show fear. But young Fred could express anything he felt through music. Thus we have imagination and music, two basic elements so intrinsic to any healthy childhood that of course he made them crucial parts of his show.

The movie also talks a bit about “Fat Fred”, the bully target that Rogers used to be in his overweight preteen years. Many of the interviewees speculate that Rogers made the show to tell kids what he had wished someone had told him in those years. I’d go a step further — at one point, Rogers says (through archival footage) that he always pictured one specific person when he addressed the camera. He wouldn’t say who that one person was, just that he was addressing the audience as one specific person. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he was talking directly to his withdrawn and overweight younger self.

Incidentally, this might explain why Rogers’ brief and ill-fated experiment with adult-oriented television didn’t work. He simply couldn’t connect with adults the way he could connect with the young and young-at-heart, probably because trying to placate his own frustrated inner child is where his passion really was.

It’s not that Fred Rogers didn’t have demons, it’s just that the show provided an outlet for those demons. This is most especially obvious in his use of puppets. All throughout the interviews and archive footage, we get examples of Rogers using his puppets, voices, and characters to express feelings and opinions that he himself wasn’t comfortable with. Moreover, there’s speculation that when we see Mr. Rogers and his make-believe friends work through some conflict or emotional turmoil, what we’re really seeing is Fred Rogers hashing things out with his own negative feelings and turning that inner dialogue into something positive.

(Side note: A friend of mine in the local theatre scene once said that the best puppeteers she ever worked with were extreme introverts, because the puppet can act as a kind of expressive filter. While Rogers is shown to be very outgoing, endlessly jovial and patient with everyone he meets, the movie shows a shy and awkward side to him that puppets would definitely appeal to. In fact, given how many times he interacts with people through puppets over the course of the documentary, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some social problems that the puppets helped him work through.)

Something else that drove Rogers was the constant passion for being the change he wanted to see in the world. More specifically, with regards to children’s television. The documentary spends a great deal of screen time talking about movies and TV shows that are overly violent and fast-paced, reaching a nadir in the mid-70s, when kids would injure or even accidentally kill themselves imitating superheroes.

It’s tempting to think that Rogers was against violent media for kids, but I don’t think that’s the full answer. After all, this is the man who regularly addressed themes of war and death on his show, and famously taught a generation of kids what the word “assassination” means. Also, we’re repeatedly shown archival footage of Rogers himself decrying children’s media that devalues the dignity of our fellow human beings. But even then, I don’t think that’s the full answer.

The movie shows us footage from the Transformers movie, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, and toy gun commercials juxtaposed against the peaceful and compassionate Mister Rogers. We also see various television clowns and clips of Ren and Stimpy contrasted against the slow and methodical patience of Rogers’ program. And what really ties it all together is Rogers himself, commenting on the clownish TV show host telling kids “Here’s our next cartoon!” without a single thought about what the cartoon actually was or what the cartoon was saying.

The common thread is that Mister Rogers wasn’t against the entertainment itself so much as he was against the reasoning behind the entertainment. It’s not that G.I. Joe and the Ninja Turtles were violent, but that they were violent for no higher purpose than to sell toys. It’s not that clowns and cartoons are loud and flashy, but that they were designed to keep children entertained for a little while and be promptly forgotten.

This is what set Fred Rogers apart from his peers in media for children: Everyone wanted to entertain kids, but Rogers was the only one who really wanted to engage them. Better than anyone else before or since, Rogers understood that face-to-face communication and interpersonal connection are every bit as potent through a television screen, especially for kids.

Everything about the show was built around the concept of communication, and this is especially visible in how Mister Rogers didn’t spend the entire run time talking into the camera. Rogers had a tremendous gift for utilizing silence, without ever wasting a second of dead air, and the movie makes a special point of demonstrating that. Moreover, he always began every episode with the question “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Notice how the question is very singular, directed specifically toward you and not the greater viewing audience. There’s also the recurring use of the word “neighbor”. This implies a neighborhood, which implies a community, which in turn implies a wider group of people who are all there to support each other. So basically, Rogers began every show by directly addressing each individual kid in the audience and inviting them to be a casual yet supportive and beloved part of his local community. Even if it’s only an illusion of an invitation, that’s still a powerful way to make the audience feel like they’re actively being heard and listened to. Rogers drew the audience in and made the viewer feel like part of the show, inspiring countless other shows for young kids in the years that followed (see also: “Blue’s Clues”, “Dora the Explorer”, etc.).

This is a huge part of why Rogers could get away with something that nobody else really could. Anyone can throw together a ramshackle set and talk into a camera, but nobody could engender trust the way that Rogers could. Nobody else could look directly into the camera and make you feel like he was speaking to you specifically. His set may have looked cheap, but it was clearly put together with affection and lovingly maintained. The performances were so exacting that everyone clearly meant what they were saying. The scripts were so deliberately and carefully worded that Rogers deeply cared about what he was saying and believed in it with all his being.

With nothing more than a smile and a kind word, Rogers made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t doing this to sell toys. He wasn’t interested in tossing out a few cheap jokes or flashy colors and calling it a day. Rogers and his show were clearly mission-based, and that mission was to make the world a more compassionate place. This was a man who had pledged his life to telling every child that their life had value, even and especially if they wouldn’t hear that message from anyone else. Which brings us to the religious aspect.

Even if Rogers never actively mentioned any particular God or religion, he was still a Presbyterian minister. His spiritual and political leanings are discussed briefly, especially with relation to his methods, his personal philosophy, his television career, etc. My personal favorite anecdote concerns Francois “Officer” Clemmons, a homosexual cast member who was still closeted at the time of production. (This was the 1970s, remember.) While Rogers was perfectly happy to bring a black man onto the cast, present Officer Clemmons as a fine upstanding man for all the African-American children to look up to, and even wash feet together when integrated swimming pools were still illegal, Rogers was obviously worried that having a homosexual in the cast was a bridge too far. Clemmons took part in a sham marriage and had to stay in the closet.

(Side note: Directly addressing the rumors that Rogers was gay, Clemmons is clear and direct in shutting that down. And if anyone would know, it’d be him.)

But was Rogers really a homophobe? Yeah, right. This is the man who told everyone that he loved them just the way they were, and he never put an asterisk on that statement. The movie shows us when the full impact of that statement really hits Clemmons, and I dare you not to cry when that moment happens.

The movie also goes into the modern backlash against Rogers, with conservative pundits talking about how Rogers raised an entitled generation of kids who believe that they’re special and the rules don’t apply to them. And then of course we have the protesters who picketed Rogers’ funeral, upset over his perceived tolerance of homosexuals.

(Political note: Rogers was accused of making kids feel entitled, and his accusers felt that they were entitled to more than everyone else by virtue of their race, class, sexuality, etc. Hypocrisy, much?)

What I find most interesting in this talk about the backlash is how the movie focuses on the kids. Specifically, the young children who got dragged along to hold up signs and picket Mister Rogers’ funeral. Kids who looked like they had no idea where they were or what they were doing, and looked so miserable that they’d probably rather be anywhere else. Mister Rogers encouraged kids to be themselves, loving themselves and each other for who and what they were; while these protesters force their kids into hating someone else for reasons they can’t understand. Everyone else values kids for what they’ll grow up to be, and only Mister Rogers valued kids for being themselves as they were in the moment. Look at the effect each side had on the world at large, and… well, the end results speak for themselves.

With all of that said, I think the movie’s greatest point is probably its de facto climax. The children of the world are looking to Mister Rogers to help make sense of 9/11, and he’s called back into the studio to record a special message. This is easily the worst disaster he’s seen in his lifetime, an unimaginable catastrophe even by the standards of the awful things he’s seen and commented on for the show. More than that, his show wrapped ten days prior. There’s no set, no Land of Make-Believe, no puppets, and no “character” of Mister Rogers. Here is a man only two years away from dying, thrust into a role he was never prepared for because the world is convinced he’s the only one who can do it.

In short, this is when we see the “real” Mister Rogers. The chips are down, he’s worn to the core, and there is no time or energy to spend toward maintaining any kind of artifice. Which makes it all the more extraordinary when Rogers shows that there was really very little artifice to begin with. Watching him on the set before the cameras roll, struggling with what to say, it becomes obvious that he was the real deal all along.

The best compliment I can pay to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is that it explores the show and the man behind it without ever ruining the magic of either. The more I came to know about Fred Rogers and his legacy, about the inner workings of the show and what drove Fred Rogers to act as he did, the more I came to appreciate all of that. And the whole time, none of it felt cloying or dishonest or unfairly biased. What more can anyone ask of a documentary?

The movie is a testament to Fred Rogers’ philosophy and a firm reminder of why we needed his show. Far more importantly, the film is a deeply inspiring plea for all of us to be more compassionate, especially toward the youngest and most vulnerable of us. To paraphrase one interviewee, there are more people like Fred Rogers out there than we think, and perhaps more than we want to believe are out there. Let them come forward, be recognized, and supported.

Believe the hype, folks. This is easily one of the best movies you’ll see all year and you should totally see it now.

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