Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ Is the Documentary We Deserve

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“Love is at the root of everything. Love or the lack of it.” Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a straightforward documentary about Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It looks at the life and times of Rogers but more importantly seems fascinated by his simple gentle kindness. It says a lot about us, both as a culture and a species, that a person who managed to simply be nice, is somehow an outlier.

I’m a child of PBS television; which is to say, public television. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and 3-2-1 Contact made up a large swath of my early television schedule. As a child, I loved these shows but eventually outgrew them, mocked them, and eventually looked back on them fondly. 

More than Mister Rogers himself, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? looks at his unique worldview in regards to children and their entertainment. Mister Rogers was appalled at the way advertisers, then and now, seemed to cater specifically to children. One commercial we see has two boys watching some sort of G.I. Joe type movie on television. The soldiers turn to the children and toss their guns from the television into reality.

Mister Rogers, a lifelong Republican, found this distressing. It bothered him that children were being viewed more as consumers than as children. Neville’s look at Mister Rogers is much more than nostalgia. It’s a deeply thought out argument about how we treat children and each other. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was, and remains, a rarity.

Watching old clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood we’re struck by how quiet it is. Most children’s television tries to match the energy and excitement of childhood. But Mister Rogers never wanted to entertain, he wanted a relationship with them. “There’s a lot of quiet time where nothing happens. But it’s never wasted silence.” Mister Rogers would have a turtle crawl across a floor and ask children to just watch it, observe it.

As a teenager, I remember landing on PBS and catching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I rolled my eyes at how stupid and silly the show was as it talked about and showed how spoons were made. “How boring could you get?” I thought. It wasn’t until much later I realized the simple beauty of a child’s curiosity. I bet a child would like to know how spoons were made.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Mister Rogers believed fervently love was the root of everything. “Love or the lack of it.” It is this astounding and overarching belief that had me in tears throughout most of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? He never wore a collar and he never mentioned God or Jesus. He recognized a simple truth that applies to both children and adults alike. We are filled with a myriad of deep and complex emotions and we sometimes have trouble expressing them. Oftentimes we choose anger.

Late into the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? mentions a news story about a little boy who jumped off a roof because he wanted to fly like Superman. Mister Rogers was angered that no one seemed to be helping these children distinguish between reality and make believe. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood drew bold lines between real life and the magical land of Make Believe. A land ruled by the benevolent dictator King Friday the XIII.

I was struck by how one of the earlier episodes dealt with King Friday building a wall around his castle as he and his servants chanted slogans against change. The circular nature of existence is amazing at times; sad at others. It’s hard to explain why Mister Rogers Neighborhood or even Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is so moving. Other than it’s about a very nice man.

The black actor who played Officer McFeely, Francois Clemmons, gives us a dimension to Mister Rogers that is sad but hopeful. During an episode, Mister Rogers asked Clemmons to cool his feet with him in the wading pool. Understand that this was during a time in which segregation was a real and legal thing. “My being on the show was a statement for Fed.”

A statement that did not stretch to Clemmons’ gayness. After being spotted in a gay bar Mister Rogers terrified of losing advertisers for a show that he had just saved from the Senate chopping block, tells Clemmons “You can’t do that anymore.” Clemmons makes it clear Mister Rogers never threatened him or told him to “pray away the gay”.

Still, Clemmons was forced into the closet. He married a woman, the marriage soon fell apart. Then one day Mister Rogers told Clemmons he loved him. Tearfully Clemmons tells us about the time Mister Rogers finally accepted him totally and wholly; how Fred became a surrogate father to him. “Love is at the root of everything. Love or the lack of it.”

Even Mister Rogers isn’t perfect. But then again he never claimed to be. One of his puppets, Daniel the Striped Tiger, voiced by Fred, once confessed to Lady Olivia, “I think I’m a mistake.” What makes Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?  so outstanding is how unabashedly Mister Rogers embraces melancholy. Childhood is not all happiness and giggles. Much like us children have great fears and all-encompassing doubts. Mister Rogers taught that it was okay to feel those things and more importantly express those things.

Growing up my favorite movie of all time was Harvey. A movie based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase. A story about Elwood P. Dowd’s (Jimmy Stewart) and his best friend a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. Eventually, I left Harvey behind. My reasoning was a line of dialogue that had stuck in my craw and I could never really get over. Elwood is talking to a psychiatrist. “You know my Mother used to tell me, in this world Elwood-she always used to call me Elwood. In this World Elwood, you can be oh so smart; or oh so pleasant. Well for years I was smart. I rather prefer pleasant.”

My issue was the notion that people had to be one or the other. Being nice didn’t mean you were an idiot and being smart didn’t mean you had to be a jerk; though modern television would try and tell you otherwise. But watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? something occurred to me; what if I’m wrong.

What if the line isn’t about being smart and pleasant. Spend enough time online and you’ll see people express outrage or sadness over one cause or another, or sometimes just talking about harassment. Invariably someone will chime in with “Well actually,” or something along those lines. It’s an attempt to invalidate the other person’s feelings as well as show how smart they are. What if Chase was saying if what they are saying is true-why try and make it about you? “You can be oh so smart. Or oh so pleasant.”

People are more interested in being right than being human sometimes. Fred Rogers was a man who couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just listen to each other. On 9/11 Mister Rogers was asked to make a statement to the nation’s children. Behind the scenes footage shows an old man who does not understand the world anymore. 

Fox News blames him for the rise of “entitlement culture” because of his message of “Everyone is unique.” Hearing this Mister Rogers expounded on this premise at a commencement speech, “Everyone deserves love and is capable of loving.”

It is impossible to imagine a world without Mister Rogers. Even sadder is how impossible it is to imagine Mister Rogers existing today. The myths surrounding Mister Rogers past show the sort of terrifying unease in which, we as a culture have with nonperformative masculinity. A sweet and caring man? Must have been a sniper. He was not. His arms are covered with tattoos, that’s why he wears sweaters. He has no tattoos.

What is so threatening about Fred Rogers that we feel compelled to make up convoluted and blood-soaked origin stories for the creator/puppeteer/host of a children’s television show on public television? A gentle soft-spoken man who loves and respects children, a serious thinker about child development, loves his family and preaches love. Obviously, he must be gay. “Love is at the root of everything. Love or the lack of it.”

It’s hard to describe the deep and abiding wellspring of emotion that poured through me watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A small part of it is the visceral sense memory of my childhood. But this makes it seem like nothing more than a little trip down nostalgia avenue. I think more than anything it was simply because it was about a man who realized he preferred to be pleasant.


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