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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

If the current toxic political and social world that seems to thrive on cynicism and corruption has you feeling down, then Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about kid's show host Fred Rogers, may be just the movie you need to see.  It's impossible not to admire and be drawn into the story of how this ordained minister wanted to help children make sense of the world around them, so he created a low budget TV show that ran for nearly 2,000 episodes from 1968 to 2001 (he passed away at age 74 in 2003), and helped children cope with topics as diverse as losing a beloved pet, to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, racism and Vietnam.

Early on, we're told by someone who worked on the show that everything you could do to make a good television show, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood did the opposite of it.  The sets were low budget and cheap, the pace was slow and reflective, and the host was not exactly overflowing with TV star charisma.  Fred Rogers got into the TV business, because when he looked at children's television, all he could see was humor based around humiliation, with characters being hit in the face with pies.  He knew that shows for kids could do so much more, and his main mission was to connect with children and let them know that he understood them, and could talk to them on their level without talking down to them.  The pokey pace and calming atmosphere of the show was obviously different from anything else that was being marketed to children at the time (and today, as well), and it led to a lot of skepticism and ridicule from people who did not understand what Rogers was going for.  But he carried on with his personal mission up to the end, when he became ill and could no longer do the program.

We don't learn much about the private life of the man, as he was notoriously secretive about his personal and family life up to the end.  We do, however, hear from his widow and two sons, one of whom admits that it was not easy being raised by "the second Christ".  What we do learn is that Fred was incredibly in tune with what was going on in the world, and knew how to explain these difficult topics to children.  When there was an incident involving an attack on some black people for trying to swim in a hotel pool, Rogers had a segment on his show where he invited a cop, played by gay African-American Fran├žois Clemmons, to soak his feet with him in a plastic pool to show children that there was nothing wrong with people of different color sharing a pool together.  This interview with Clemmons leads to a fascinating story of how when Rogers found out Clemmons was gay, he told the actor not to come out with his sexuality, as he feared it would hurt the show.  However, over time, Rogers softened his stance on gays (even though he was a political conservative in real life, and it went against the stance many in the party held at the time), and would personally apologize.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is simple and straightforward in its structure.  You won't learn any shocking truths about the man here.  It simply exists to celebrate the ideals of love, understanding and compassion that Mr. Rogers imparted to children on a regular basis.  What insights the movie does give us is that he actually hated television and celebrity fame, and yet used both in order to reach the children of the world.  We also learn that of all the puppet characters that appeared on his show, he most strongly identified with Daniel Striped Tiger, a sad-faced and sensitive little tiger who often feared that he was different and too tame compared to others like him.  The character seemed to be inspired by Rogers own childhood, where he was an overweight boy from a wealthy family who was nicknamed "Fat Freddy", and who often suffered bouts of loneliness, bullying and anger.  And before you start to think that this will be a sad or preachy film, the movie does take plenty of time to show Rogers' distinctive sense of humor with the people who worked on his show, such as when a crew member took a picture of his bare behind on a role of film Rogers' was using in a camera, and the prank that Rogers pulled in return.

But it is not so much the story of Rogers that makes this documentary so compelling.  It is the argument the film makes for his belief in love and understanding one another.  Listening to him talk about his message in either clips from the show, or rare interviews, it's hard not to let his words wash over you and make you feel his emotion.  Near the end of the film, we see a commencement speech that Rogers gave to the graduating students at Middlebury College in 2001, and how he tells them that you don't have to do anything sensational in order to be loved.  I think this statement represents his philosophy best of all, and it's hard not to tear up as you listen to his words in that gentle voice of his.  I was saddened to learn that his funeral was picketed by gay rights protestors, not because he was gay, but because he was tolerant of them.  They were protesting tolerance itself.  This contrast between Rogers' words that have been reaching us throughout the film, and the stupidity of the hatred outside of his own funeral is heartbreaking.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is not just a movie with a message, but it's also entirely compelling and completely enthralling in a quiet and unassuming way, much the way the show was to children all of the world.  It's one of the best films I've seen this summer, and probably the year itself.  Rogers' influence can still be felt by children who were born after his show went off the air, and I can only hope that this documentary can strengthen his message.

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