If you like portrait documentaries about widely beloved individuals of yesteryear that give you a chance to cry nostalgically over your feelings of devotion and loss, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is extremely your shit. I watched this worshipful documentary about Fred Rogers, creator and star of the long-running children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in a packed audience of weepers, and didn’t even mind the wall-to-wall snuffling. That just shows director Morgan Neville, who won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 20 Feet From Stardom, has got real talent.
Fred Rogers seems like he was an extremely decent guy, almost absurdly nice, like a real-life Ned Flanders. And how often can you say that about a conservative white Republican of very strong Protestant religious beliefs? The film treats him as a kind of unicorn, expressing amazement that such a unique creature ever existed.
And indeed it’s impressive what Rogers achieved, considering what an odd duck he was. His sense of childhood alienation is illustrated in the film with beautiful animated sequences by Ariel Costa and Rodrigo Miguel Rangel. They show Rogers as the meek and sensitive character of the hand-puppet alter ego he invented for the TV show, Daniel Striped Tiger. (Striped is pronounced “Stri-ped,” with an old-fashioned emphasis on the last syllable.) A lonely, sickly, bullied boy from a wealthy family, cruelly nicknamed “Fat Freddie,” he grew up aspiring to a traditional Presbyterian ministry until he found, early in his adult life, a less traditional mission: to use television as a tool that would help children negotiate a difficult world.
He could be a remarkably fearless, stand-up guy when it counted. We find out that it was Fred Rogers who, seemingly single-handedly, persuaded the hostile head of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, John O. Pastore, to continue funding the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) with a much-needed $20 million. We see the footage of the hearing, lest we doubt that it was Rogers’ description of his own show, and his truly eccentric recitation of the lyrics of one of his many children’s songs, that converted the old bastard. It’s like a Christmas miracle when the senator’s cartoonishly mean face cracks and is suddenly wreathed in smiles as he says, “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
Everybody loved Mister Rogers, it seems. Even Koko the Gorilla gave him her personal gruffle of approval in an extraordinary interview, clinging to him affectionately and signing “Love” and “Visit.” And as a rule, what’s good enough for Koko the Gorilla is good enough for me. (Rest in Power, Koko!)
Yet I have to confess, when I was a kid, I hated Mister Rogers and the TV show he rode in on. If any careless family member of mine ever left the TV turned to the PBS station when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on, I did a dash to change the channel that would’ve qualified me for the Children’s Olympics. Mine was a serious aversion. I couldn’t stand Mister Rogers’ pale, staring face, his cardigan sweater, or his homely Pennsylvania accent. The tune and lyrics of that “would you be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor” theme song gave me the creeps.
Admittedly I was an odd, troubled kid from an odd, troubled family. But judging from this doc, that made me the kind of kid Mister Rogers could’ve helped with his steady-gazing, slow-talking, earnestly caring way that worked magic on so many others. But my reaction was more like Yo-Yo Ma’s, who claims he was “terrified” when they first met, because Fred Rogers put his face approximately three inches from Yo-Yo Ma’s while exclaiming, “How ARRRE you? I’m SOOOO glad to meet you.”
When I was a child, my least favorite adults were the ultra-sincere kind who crouched down to my level and peered into my eyes and breathed on me and generally took far too great an interest in my personal life. I was a kid with a strong sense of privacy. I didn’t like anyone speaking slowly to me either, or inquiring into my deepest feelings about bad things that had just happened. In the documentary, for example, we watch Mister Rogers prodding a little girl to talk about the recent death of her cat, and all I could think as the girl’s expression got flatter and her answers got terser was, “Yep, I’d have handled that just the same. Stonewall him!”
My favorite TV shows that I was watching instead of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were, in no particular order:
- Green Acres
- The Addams Family
- The Beverly Hillbillies
- Looney Tunes cartoons
All were comedies featuring mad, fantastical events, in which the most admirable characters were always the ones who could handle chaos with aplomb. That seemed right for the world I saw around me, which was also mad and chaotic, though never so benevolent as in my favorite shows. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood struck me as disturbingly obsolete, suited to a slow world that had long since expired in nineteenth-century fumes of quaintness. The slowness of Mister Rogers’ show is celebrated in the documentary as an antidote to all the fast and heartless commercial television slapstick of children’s programming from the 1960s and ’70s, much of which I loved. As an extreme illustration of Rogers’ fundamentally different philosophy of what mass media should be, there was a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode in which he set out to illustrate to kids how long a minute was by sitting absolutely still and silent for a full sixty seconds, staging a kind of children’s From Here to Eternity challenge.
Given my disdain for what seemed to (young) me the show’s listless pace and desperate lack of interesting developments, it was news to (adult) me that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was packed with radical topicality. It seems that literally from the first televised episode of his show in 1968 onward, Mister Rogers was trying to help kids cope with everything from the Vietnam War to 9/11. Admirable, but even if I’d tried to stick with the show, I could never have endured the Mister Rogers pathos-filled approach. It’s represented in the documentary as the sequence in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that aired the day after the murder of Robert F. Kennedy. When Daniel Striped Tiger asks in lugubrious tones, “What does ‘assassination’ mean?”, it brought back all my urgent childhood need to sprint up to the screen and change the channel.
A question is posed halfway through the film, asking whether Mister Rogers left a legacy after a long life devoted to elevating children’s television. The answer is oddly obscured, with gestures toward a variety of vague takes, including:
- No, his uniquely beautiful show was overwhelmed by a filthy tide of violent and demeaning commercial TV.
- Yes, just consider all the children who were partially raised by Mister Rogers, many of whom are snuffling in audiences all over the country right now!
- What does a unicorn know from legacies? We must cherish the memory of that one magical sighting.
The lack of a concrete answer is one of several areas glossed over in the film. I’d like to have known more, for example, about this “lifelong Republican” ideology of Rogers’, and how he squared it, over several decades, with GOP policies swinging ever harder and more viciously to the right.
We see Rogers’ admirable participation in late 1960s racial justice efforts when he hires a black performer, Francois Clemmons, to play a major character on the show, the policeman Officer Clemmons who is “in your neighborhood” to guarantee everyone’s safety. However, Mister Rogers’ cluelessness is also represented at the same time, because, as Clemmons says, “In my neighborhood, a cop was the last person you’d think of to make you safe.”
Clemmons was also gay, and got spotted at a gay club, which led to a potential crisis after Mister Rogers warned him not to go back to that gay club or any other gay club. Mister Rogers also urged him to marry in order to cover up his sexual orientation, which the documentary doesn’t make entirely clear. The marriage predictably ended in disaster. But the complexities of Clemmons’ and Rogers’ relationship multiply as Clemmons tears up recalling Mister Rogers’ otherwise loving mentorship over the years.
Also, what happened to Rogers’ defense of PBS funding in later years, when Republican calls for cuts or even the station’s demise got ever louder? For example, it would be interesting to know what Rogers’ stance, if any, was in 1991, when PBS screened Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, an experimental documentary dealing frankly with the struggles and complex forms of socio-political oppression of black gay men in America. In the resulting scandal, Republicans, led by Pat Buchanan, demanded an end to taxpayer support for “pornographic art.”
Another issue arising from Fred Rogers’ bio that the documentary brushes past: how exactly did this guy get into television again? Judging by the swiftly edited leaps upward in Rogers’ television career presented here, you’d guess Fred Rogers just decided he wanted to have his own show, and God arranged it for him.
Still, let’s not quibble too much. In the end, the film makes its saddening point: we aren’t likely to see Mister Rogers’ like again, on television or anywhere else in American public life. He genuinely meant well, this WASP man of God, and he did his honest best to use his influence for good. It’s clear he was very gifted in helping a lot of children, and it’s no fault of his that I hated his TV show. Probably if I’d met him, and Koko the Gorilla had also been present to vouch for him, he’d have won me over, and I’d have signed “Love” and “Visit” and gone away uplifted.