The Mister Rogers Documentary is a Manifesto for Healing America
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” says everything our country needs to hear about self-esteem, common decency, and loving people for who they are.
Director Morgan Neville’s new film about PBS star Fred Rogers and his hit TV show Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood (1968–2001) may be the most devastating and empowering documentary I’ve ever seen; it rips the scabs off the wounds inflicted by Trump-era divisiveness and posits a simple solution to our social and cultural unraveling: Love your neighbor.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes it clear that Rogers’s ideas about kindness were never quaint. The ordained Presbyterian-minister-turned-small-screen-phenomenon who died in 2003 relished the routine he reproduced in his spartan television studio, which was designed like a cozy Pittsburgh bungalow with a living room sofa and toy trolley that zipped along tracks to a make-believe kingdom run by puppets named King Friday (Rogers’s nemesis alter-ego), Lady Elaine (Rogers’s assertive alter-ego), and Daniel Striped Tiger (Rogers’s empathetic alter-ego). On these sets, Rogers’s willingness to tackle topics such as race, community, disability, death, divorce, and friendship equaled a quiet revolution toward understanding and the promotion of a peaceful coexistence for a generation of children and their parents.
Amidst the volatile political climate of 2018, where many Americans on both sides of the aisle feel helpless and in which high-profile celebrities commit suicide, reliving Rogers’s message of “I like you as you are” feels achingly raw, refreshingly anarchic, and desperately needed. It’s hard to watch the documentary’s clips from the show’s 33-year run, as well as interviews with Rogers, and his family, cast, and crew, without drawing contrasts between the way life in the U.S.A. was depicted decades ago and the way it appears now: In one scene from a 1980 episode, Rogers joyfully sings a song with a 10-year-old boy living with quadriplegia, and in another he comforts a child whose cat has died––gentle situations which differ sharply from today’s news stories about U.S. immigration officials forcibly separating children from their parents and a POTUS who mocks a reporter with a physical disability.
In a spring 1969 scene, Rogers and François Clemmons, who played the friendly police officer on Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood, take their shoes off and dip their feet together, white and black, in a wading pool; the moment made a statement of unity at a time in American history when black children were being kicked out of public swimming areas. (Mr. Rogers remains woke a decade later in a clip which shows him playing with kids on city street to the sounds of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”)
One of the most surprising and moving moments in the film happens when Rogers meets KoKo the gorilla, who tells him in sign language that she loves him. It’s both corny and unnerving to realize that the love which the man in the cardigan and sneakers sang about all those years in songs such as “I’m Proud of You” and “You’re Special” is enough to transcend species and even life on earth. This scene is a powerful statement about the vastness of the universe and the enormity of the spiritual impact made by the tiniest of gestures.
Fred Rogers was not a political man who blindly followed partisan leaders. Early on in the film, we learn that he identified as a Republican who chose not to politicize his Christian faith. He spoke out in support of issues he believed in––including funding for public television, which he lobbied congress to protect in a famous 1969 speech. The documentary shows us he was not a fan of the glorification of guns, the war in Vietnam, or President Nixon. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reveals that Rogers supported his gay costar Clemmons, but didn’t feel comfortable with a public outing on the show (read more about how Rogers’s nuanced stance evolved). Near the end of the doc, we watch Rogers’s views about tolerance, self-esteem, and diversity become targets of the conservative far right: his 2003 funeral was picketed; the internet trolled his legacy in the mid-2000s with false rumors about a violent past; and in 2013, the Fox and Friends morning show dared to call him “evil.” (When you see the film, listen for the gasps of disbelief and dismay in the movie theater as the Fox clip appears onscreen the documentary.)
What Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Does best is establish Fred Rogers as the singular purveyor of the inclusive and tolerant worldview espoused to millions of Generation X children, who continued to keep his loving lens close at hand when dealing tough situations later in their lives, from the shocking 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion to the horrors of September 11, 2001 and the realities of life in post-truth America during the digital age.
Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood first aired in the late 1960s, when Gen-Xers like me were being born. I’m 49 now, but I remember those days when children perused the World Book encyclopedia to learn about other kids across the globe, brave Americans walked on the moon, and everyday dreams reached beyond the Milky Way. Our early childhoods in America also marked a time of war, but not a time of hatred for our fellow citizens. We were taught that love is the answer.
In the documentary, Mister Rogers says in an interview that he believed all human behavior is influenced by love or a lack of it. If only he were here today to look the cynics and bullies in the eyes, offer snuggly-sweater hugs, and assure each one of us that a lack of love can be overcome … by love.
In a 21st-century moment dominated by depressing 24-hour news cycles, the film’s directive to use love and kindness in even the most commonplace of human interactions (a smile!) might feel unattainable. Yet, Rogers’s elegant and methodical mannerisms and his soothing voice — the voice of our childhoods — have returned to tell us it’s O.K. to release the emotions we’ve held inside while dealing with the political rifts and personal hardships of the past few years.
Watching the film in the theater along with a hundred strangers is akin to a group sigh, a soft yet triumphant 94 minutes of denormalizing the lies and rude behavior which have become too prevalent in the present day. The term “safe space” has been ridiculed often, but it is the perfect description of the beautifully unguarded room the movie theater becomes with Mister Rogers on the big screen. He’s a trusted comforter, and it’s easy to let our pain go while sitting in the dark.
As the tears flow and flow and flow during this brilliant documentary, we’re spurred to make things better in our own neighborhoods, and we’re reminded that all of humanity shares the same planetary address.