WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
There is a phrase used many times in film reviews, which I have avoided until now, but after seeing Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Mister Rogers' Neighborhood host Fred Rogers, I feel compelled to use it now.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a film we need at this time.
Whether it is nostalgia, a hope for see those mythical tattoos from his alleged time as a sniper, or an exploration as to this man's unique worldview, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is neither hagiography or take-down. It is respectful, kind, gentle, compassionate but with a quiet strength and even anger at how the world has become so mean and a desire to make it a better world.
It a reflection of the man himself.
"Love is at the root of everything, love...or the lack of it," Fred Rogers says near the beginning of the film via archival footage, and we see how Rogers came about to become an unlikely television pioneer.
Fred Rogers was studying to be a minister, eventually being ordained into the Presbyterian Church. However, while visiting his parents he became, if not fascinated by television itself at least by the potential television could have. He was also distressed by many aspects of children's television in the mid-to-late 1960s: the fast pace, the pie-throwing and other forms of physical violence, and most of all by how children were talked down to.
Using his education in child development along with his Christian faith to guide him, his first venture onto television was The Children's Corner, a fifteen-minute show on local Pittsburgh television. Here, he developed the puppets, voices and model for what would become Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Rogers became a passionate yet quiet advocate for public television, facing off the formidable Senator John Pastore (D-RI), who was determined to cut PBS funding. Rogers' now-famous testimony before Pastore's committee ended up charming the curmudgeonly Senator so much that he congratulated Rogers, telling him, "Looks like you just earned the $20 million".
He thought he had done enough programming at one point, around the late 1970s, to repeat the episodes and move on to other projects such as Old Friends, New Friends, a variation on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood more for adults that was not successful. However, when he learned that children were still being mislead, unintentionally or not, by advertisers, programmers and adults who could not or would not show children the difference between fantasy and reality, he felt compelled to return to his 'mission field'.
Of particular note was his distress when he learned children were being injured attempting to fly like Superman, the children unaware that what they were seeing was not real.
Fred Rogers, through his program, led by example in a gentle, confrontational manner. He washed his feet in a pool with 'Officer Clemmons', a black man at a time when others threw acid into pools that had swimmers of various races. He, through the Land of Make-Believe section of the program, tackled uncomfortable topics like assassination, fear of change and the Challenger explosion even if he himself did not appear in person but through providing the puppets' voices.
The film also touches on the workings of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and his nonchalance at the antics of some of the crew, along with his acceptance of parodies such as Saturday Night Live's Mister Robinson's Neighborhood skits with Eddie Murphy. While he told David Letterman in an interview he did not think they were all funny, he did say he also thought they came from a place of affection.
However, the film also suggests that some parodies and spoofs were hurtful, reminding him of when Rogers himself as a child had been bullied for his weight. The parodies might have brought back uncomfortable memories of 'Fat Freddy'. It also touches on his own childhood where he was not allowed to express anger or fear, but found an outlet through music.
After I left Won't You Be My Neighbor?, I found myself inspired by Fred Rogers and his worldview. I don't know if this was director Morgan Neville's goal. I doubt it was, but his portrait of Rogers, respectful and observant, showed that the man was as he appeared to be.
There was no subterfuge, no 'funny hats', just a man with his sweaters and sneakers, doing what he could to make children feel happy and safe in a world of uncertainty.
His worldview was one based on Christianity, but his Christian faith was a living and not doctrinal faith. At a commencement speech, one of the things he mentions that he finds distressing, along with the destruction of the environment, is the eroding of the Sabbath. He lived out his faith in a way not many of us do: by being a doer of The Word and not just a Hearer of The Word.
For Fred Rogers, his true model was Jesus Christ. Both taught by parables, both had compassion and love for everyone, and both called the little children to come to them. Both also loved life and laughter.
One Mister Rogers' Neighborhood production member recounts when the crew was goofing around and took Rogers' camera to take a picture of the production member's behind before leaving the camera back for Rogers. Mr. Rogers never said anything about that picture, but at Christmastime he quietly presented a poster-size print of that cheeky pic to that cheeky crewman.
Fred Rogers was also a firm Christian in his righteous anger. Just as Christ was enraged when he saw the Temple defiled with moneylenders, Rogers too was quietly enraged when he saw how children's television was misused. The fast pace, the disrespect for others, the over-stimulation all grated at him. For Rogers, he saw that most children's television wanted to just make them laugh. He wanted television to make them think and more importantly, make them feel. Rogers above all else respected children and their feelings as they developed their growing worldviews.
For me, that suggests that Rogers did truly accept people as they were, even if in the case of Clemmons, he asked the aspiring singer to keep his homosexuality secret for fear of losing sponsors. Eventually Rogers came around and his widow Joanne remarks that they had many gay friends. This, along with Rogers' somewhat eccentric fixation with the number 143 as both meaning "I Love You" and his ideal weight which never shifted, are about the only genuine criticisms Won't You Be My Neighbor? can find to the man.
What we get in Won't You Be My Neighbor? is of a man who lived out his faith, who saw the world as Christ did: with compassion for all and love for all, especially children. We see a man who saw the potential and pitfalls of television and in his own small way to use it for good, to show that love and compassion and kindness are the true treasures.
I end with this small meditation. It is impossible to know what Rogers would think of the world we live in now, where vitriol is spread nightly on television and various online forms and where children's programming is both faster-paced and more interested in indoctrinating than exploring.
I can only guess, but I imagine his heart would break at the idea of children being separated from their families. I also imagine his heart would break at the idea of adults chasing other adults out of restaurants. Both, I think, would violate his vision that 'you are special', and that your worth is inherent in your existence.
One of Rogers' many songs was I Like You As You Are, and one can imagine Christ saying this to those He met. Won't You Be My Neighbor? really is a film for these very troubled times, times we have troubled due to our own making. It's not a reminder of 'gentler times' or a gentle stroll down Memory Lane.
It's a reminder of what Christ taught were the Greatest Commandments; the First: To Love Your God With All Your Heart, With All Your Soul, With All Your Mind, and With All Your Strength.
The Second: To Love Your Neighbor As You Love Yourself.
I aspire now to be a Healer not a Hurter, thanks to Mr. Rogers.