Documentary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood reminds us how of our childhoods were in the right hands with Fred Rogers.
One of the more disappointing facets of growing up is discovering the shapers of your childhood were not as they seemed. Parents, teachers, older siblings, movie stars, TV stars, whoever directly or indirectly gave us perspective, become more flawed, more mortal. We recently learned of Bill Cosby’s sexual deviancy, which took place all throughout his precedent-setting run as Cliff Huxtable, the upper middle-class black doctor, on The Cosby Show in the 80s. The lessons of self-respect and civility learned from the show cannot be undervalued, but the message became somewhat tarnished because of the immoral actions of its messenger. That type of image-shattering realization gave birth to the phrase “Childhood ruined.” Someone or something breaks from our pattern of remembrance, taking new shape foreign to our nostalgia. Millennials are all too familiar with this maturation by fire, having grown up in the idyllic, Disney-heavy 90s only to come of age to terrorism and student loans in the early 2000s. It always seems a matter of time before something we believed to be genuine reveals itself to be fraudulent. It’s a reflex at this point – we’re expecting to be disappointed. That’s why the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which tells the story of famous children’s television host Mister Rogers, is important. It reveals something profound we didn’t expect: something sweet and sincere from our childhood was exactly as we remembered it.
Director Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t so much humanize the myth of Fred Rogers as it does remind us of his kindness that seems alien to us now. We often wonder if a public figure is how he or she seems on camera, off camera. We learn quickly that Fred Rogers was exactly who he seemed: a man who cared deeply for the development of children. “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships,” he says in an interview. “Love or the lack of it.”
Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, but pivoted to television when he saw how children were addressed on its programming. He felt the fundamentals of learning that would best benefit them were being ignored. He wanted less pies thrown in faces and more reassurances to children that their feelings wouldn’t be glossed over with cheap gimmicks. “Television has a chance to build a community out of an entire country.” He began working onto children’s television shows to learn better how to properly teach children. Favoring public television over advertisement-heavy NBC, he began his own show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968 in Pittsburgh. Every episode of the Neighborhood began the same way: he would enter through the door with a warm smile, slip off his loafers, change into his sneakers and cardigan, all while singing, “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”
What set Fred Rogers apart from his contemporaries is he didn’t shy away from real world issues on his program: Vietnam, RFK’s assassination, the Challenger explosion, death, divorce, and crippling self-doubt. He saw no reason to keep these topics from children; under his delicate guidance, they learned what these adult concepts were. “Sometimes we need to struggle with tragedy to understand the gravity of love.” Through his co-star puppet Daniel Striped Tiger, puppeteered by Rogers, he explored the common feelings among children that weren’t being addressed on television: anger, sadness, fear, and loneliness. Daniel often feared there were things wrong with him because he felt a certain way. He would learn from a guest of the show that there was nothing wrong with him, sometimes it was natural to feel the way he did. But Rogers deliberately kept Daniel worried and doubtful, knowing kindness alone couldn’t cure all in an instant. There was emotional depth to his approach that wasn’t found anywhere else in children’s television.
Though he was an ordained minister, he never identified himself as such on the show. It’s never explained why but perhaps he felt it was a better message for an average citizen to teach children rather than a pious man of the cloth. If a regular man, a citizen from the neighborhood, could show everyday kindness and understanding toward children, it builds a sense of trust. Fred Rogers understood that.
So why revisit Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? Why make a documentary about Fred Rogers now? Filmmaker Morgan Neville presents us Mister Rogers as he was while providing the context of how we are today. Generation X and millennials grew up with Mister Rogers and his assurances that we are all special. The question that is posed, but never entirely answered, is “Did his way work?” The film shows clips from Fox News pundits blaming Mister Rogers for damning effects that came from his “every child is special” rhetoric (these clips drew the biggest laughs in the audience; credit to Neville for subtly suggesting how ridiculous criticisms of Fred Rogers were/are.) Perhaps the best answer to the question is Fred Rogers wasn’t interested in an answer. He wasn’t in pursuit of any sort of quantifiable metric; he wasn’t waiting on his return on investment of the children to which he had devoted his time. He just wanted to teach children to be kind, to be thoughtful and understanding. He understood the power of television and the effect it would have on children so he sought to ensure what they were learning from it had intrinsic value to their emotional growth. That was his end game.
We, as children, wouldn’t think twice about such selfless motivation. Life was purer that way the less we knew. But as adults in 2018 – with divisive politics, precious little time act outside of self-interest, and a nagging skepticism of anyone who seems wholesome – we have become too jaded to believe it. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? helps you believe again, showing you a flesh and blood human who seemed too good to be true. Luckily for generations of children, he was every bit true.
Why you should see this movie: It’s always fascinating to see the zeitgeist of a different era and its origins, especially something that was a cultural phenomenon like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s a thoughtful documentary that reminds you of just how much history happened during his run of the show and how he found delicate yet meaningful ways to tell children. Fred Rogers was described, endearingly, in the documentary as “a radical” for his approach toward children, understanding how impressionable they are. “They need adults who will protect them from the ever-ready molders of their world.” Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a call for us to remember that kindness and empathy too can mold the world in unseen, unspoken ways for the better. They may not make you richer, but they make you a better neighbor.
Mister Rogers called on us to be “repairers of creation” after 9/11, sensing such an globe-altering event would change us, would cloud our judgment for a time, causing us to forget what inherent good we are capable of bringing to the world. It’s a good message to carry around when faced with conflict. To repair something that is broken rather than leave it. That’s what keeps a neighborhood together.