I was born in 1970, just as public television was coming into its own, and my parents were of the generation that welcomed TV as a possible tool to help teach me. I watched enough Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood that when I was three years old, my dad came home from work one day and I told him I could read him the newspaper. My parents were both amused by the idea until they sat down with me, handed me the paper, and I read them the front page. There is no doubt that those shows, which were the cornerstone of my early media diet, taught me in a practical sense, but the reason they still resonate is because they taught me much deeper lessons as well.
If there is anything about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that surprised me, it was the material about the people who hate Fred Rogers and his work, because I can’t understand how that’s possible. I get that our culture is rarely united about anything across the board, but if there’s any person who should be universally loved, it is Fred Rogers. Morgan Neville’s terrific new documentary about the educator and television personality makes the case for why that’s true in a way that is very simple and direct, but that doesn’t mean the film is simple or obvious. Neville’s done the legwork, and he’s come up with wonderful footage we’ve never seen while also hitting the highlights we have. More than that, though, the film creates a context in which the work was done, and when you look at it that way, it’s clear just how revolutionary Fred Rogers was in his thinking.
There were major advances made in child development during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Fred Rogers was a student at ground zero during all of it. His life plan at the time was to go to seminary and become a Presbyterian minister, but he found himself drawn to the potential of television while simultaneously disappointed by the way it was being used. The film traces his early flirtations with television, after which he went back to the seminary to finish his religious education. The combination of his very serious scholarly work into child development as well as his deeply-held tenets of faith is what made him such an unlikely cultural warrior, but there’s no doubt that’s what he was.
The television show that made him famous was an unlikely hit by any metric, and he was an even unlikelier host. His genius was in recognizing that very young children have a real and potent relationship with a show they watch on a daily basis, and he treated that as a responsibility. He also spoke to children in a way that acknowledged their basic humanity and dignity, treating those things as inherent. That’s where his detractors seem to focus their ire; they claim that his message that every child is special “ruined a generation,” giving them a sense of false entitlement. That is madness, though, and a mis-reading of his work that is almost perverse in how off-base it is. What that means is that every child… and, transitively, every person… is worthy of love and respect as they are, and they do not have to go to extraordinary lengths to prove they “deserve” that baseline dignity. That is what “special” means in his language. It is a simple bridge to empathy. It is the practical application of one his foundational beliefs: love thy neighbor. One of the many things that made him special is how he managed to embody his beliefs without constantly spelling them out. It runs so counter to how any other faith-driven figure has used television that it still seems positively radical.
I often think of Fred Rogers and Jim Henson in similar terms, perhaps because of how much their work was co-mingled for me in my early experience, but they’re very different in certain ways. Henson’s work with the other Muppet performers is pretty much the pinnacle of puppetry as an art. By the time he got to work like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, it was clear that he was pushing the entire craft forward to be able to build entire alternate worlds. Rogers was far simpler in his approach to puppeteering, and the film does a great job of showing how personal his performance work was. He performed the voices of all of his character, as many as ten in a show, and that’s not because there was some ego on his part. Instead, it’s an illuminating choice that is one of the reasons Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood remains one of the definitive works of art in any medium about the way childhood imagination works, and the value of time spent engaged with that imagination. Mr. Rogers never actually appears once his show shifts into the Land of Make-Believe, and that’s because he’s in every one of those characters, and they’re all just ways for him to have a conversation with himself about whatever issue it is he’s tackling. In the first week of his show, he covered more emotional and thematic ground than many adult shows do in entire seasons, and the documentary makes it clear that he could be incredibly sly about how he built his messages into the show.
One of the most moving parts of the film deals with the actor/sing François Clemmons, who appeared as Officer Clemmons on the show for decades. His relationship with Rogers was a defining one for the performer, and that seems to be true for many of the people interviewed here. By building in some context and reminding you of the moment the show was originally made, it serves as a stark reminder of how edgy the simplest things could be. The documentary shows how whites who were clinging to a segregated past found the idea of sharing public pools with blacks disgusting, and how viciously they fought the idea. Mr. Rogers aired a segment in which Rogers was outside on a hot day, cooling his feet, when Officer Clemmons walks by on patrol. Rogers invites him to take a seat and share his wading pool, and that single image, two men sharing a refreshing moment on a hot day, feet side by side, was more powerful in terms of its impact on young viewers than any number of pointed tirades would be, and I know this for a fact because I was one of those young viewers.
That’s where Rogers and Jim Henson overlapped most directly, the way they normalized a world where race was simply part of a community instead of a dividing line. On Sesame Street, monsters and Latinos and African-Americans and puppets and Big Birds and imaginary elephants and white people all lived and worked and played side by side, and no one made anyone feel different or lesser or unwelcome, and in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, everyone is welcome, and the community is stronger for the differences between people, not damaged by them. Those shows held up a funhouse mirror to a turbulent time and dared to imagine something better. I never questioned that worldview, and when my southern upbringing did finally bring me face to face with naked racial hatred, it seemed so impossibly wrong to me that it never occurred to me to join in. Rogers taught decency by example. He taught patience and tolerance and he taught that every single person is driven by the same fears and desires.
The entire idea of a children’s show that teaches emotional vocabulary still seems pretty daring, and as the show matured, so did Rogers and his approach to his work. The film takes an honest look at the way he grew frustrated by the coarsening of our culture, and for those who are looking for darker secrets or some shocking reveal about who he was, you’ll be disappointed. The film reinforces that he was who he was, both in his private life and on the show. It also shows just how personal his work could be, and how he could use his puppets to open up communication with anyone, adult or child, in ways that could be profoundly healing and beautiful. Over and over again, the film clobbered me emotionally because it is clear what a deep impact he had on the lives of the people around him, and knowing how that impact was just as strong for me, it’s clear that this was a rare and significant man. If more people took their role as media figures as seriously as he did, we would have a very different cultural conversation happening these days. Rogers wasn’t political unless you think human decency is political, but it’s clear that everyone, no matter where they stand on issues today, could take a page from the way he approached every interaction, whether with friend or foe.
Near the end of the film, mention is made of something Rogers would do, where he would ask a person to take a single minute to sit silently to think of people who had helped them in some important way in their lives. One by one, we watch each of these people who have been interviewed as they take that minute, and one by one, those people crumble as they really feel the weight of that help and that love. I watched those faces go by, and at first, I thought of Rogers and how much he had touched each of their lives. But watching them wrestle with that emotion, I remembered the quote from Roger Ebert about how it was kindness in films that made him cry as he got older and not sadness, and thinking about that led me to think of Roger himself, especially since Sundance used to be such a wonderful time for him every year. Roger reached out to me at a time when the internet was still treated as a joke, and he wasn’t just kind to me. He went above and beyond. He invited me to speak at his festival in Champaign-Urbana one year, and one night, after all of the screenings, he offered to drive me to where I was staying. There were volunteers who could have done it, and there were dozens of people who needed some piece of his time, but that night, at two in the morning, he drove me through the town where he went to college and he told me personal stories and he made me feel welcomed, like I belonged in this world that he helped define. And even though it was just for a minute, all of that came flooding in, and I felt how much that support meant to me, and I crumbled just like those people onscreen, and that’s the point that Rogers was making. One minute of real concentration and real gratitude can be overwhelming, and we so rarely take those minutes to actually feel those things.
It broke me, and as the film ended, I staggered out into the cold Sundance night, grateful all over again for the terrific teachers I’ve had and the parents, both literal and figurative, who have gotten me to where I am today. Once again, Mr. Rogers has given me a tool to help me navigate a world that can often feel sad and terrifying, and the equally timely and timeless Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a wonderful way to help ensure that those tools and those lessons continue as a living legacy for a man who embodied the very best of what we can be.
Running time: 94 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic