Fred Rogers passed away on February 27th, 2003. And the further we move from the Pittsburgh native’s death, the less it seems like such a man could exist. More myth than once living and breathing, he’s like a half-recalled memory of a bygone era. Like when you see a black-and-white photograph, and wonder if such people walked the earth. Fred Rogers did walk this earth, every single morning entering through a wooden door on PBS. And while doing so, he spoke to our softer warmer core.
Directed by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor records the evolution of Mr. Rogers’s beloved television program and how the turbulence of the world around it shaped him and the show.
The documentary attempts to humanize this myth of a man through Mr. Rogers’s own self doubt. Born fat, once known as “Fat Freddy,” he had self-esteem issues. Those difficulties led to crippling self-doubt, with even Rogers wondering what difference he was making with his show, if he could write a script, and even toward the conclusion of his life, whether he was a lamb. It also made a mantra, “you are special too.”
That simple idea, enacted in the clips of Mr. Rogers empathizing with children that the documentary displays, went on to inspire kids around the world. Growing up on the Westside of Chicago, even Mr. Rogers’s world of make believe and “reality” permeated into my morality (though Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood was more apropos to my surroundings). Its special place in my heart, and the hearts of many others, is what makes the current and past lampooning of him feel so much more hurtful. Because as “dopey” as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred Rogers came to be, due mostly to our jadedness, it should be remembered that he was not only emphatically expressive, but also radical. From the idea that every child was special to the topics he covered: a week on suicide and divorce, he was ahead of his time.
Nevertheless, it’s telling that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began so radically, yet later seemed to become more middle-of-the-road. The documentary recounts that during the first week of the series’ airing it asked what “assassination” was and talked about the Vietnam War. Later, Mr. Rogers took the unheard step of bathing his feet with a black man: François Clemmons. However, it’s when Clemmons is caught at a New York gay bar and Fred Rogers is notified that we see that he was a man, and a sometimes flawed realist. He tells Clemmons that he can’t frequent those bars anymore, and as Clemmons recounts how his marriage to his wife failed the documentary does not hide his bitterness.
There’s little doubt that Clemmons’s attraction to men ran against Mr. Rogers’s religious background. But it’s on financial grounds, not religious, that he objected to Clemmons’s proclivity toward men. He claimed that advertisers would flee from the program if there was a known gay cast member. Rogers was not wrong. Even during the sexually free 70’s, they would have fled. It’s his warning to Clemmons that demonstrates that Fred Rogers was no aloof 50’s sweater wearing imbecile, as the lampoonists depicted him. He was a realist.
Nevertheless, Rogers was still better than the men of his generation. He eventually accepted Clemmons for who he was and even claimed to love him. Clemmons on screen, next to Mrs. Rogers, provides one of the documentary’s more amusing moments. When asked whether Fred Rogers was gay, Clemmons exclaims that he of all people would have known. And as with any man, you can tell much by his friends. Clemmons, Mrs. Rogers, Yo-Yo Ma, and his children all provide hilarious soundbites. They make us aware that Fred Rogers had a sense of humor: at one point teasing Clemmons about his “ruined” singing career due to the program. Most of these instances makes the film surprisingly lighthearted. Also, the reliance on those who were closest to him, rather than the obvious celebrity talking heads gives the film an authenticity when speaking about not only the man, but his ideas too.
The documentary also reveals that Mr. Rogers was a conservative. Conservative not in the political sense of today (evidenced by Fox and Friends later ridiculing his message of everyone being special), but conservative in the role of children’s television. As the film winds through, we see him become progressively more jaded about the world around him. “He became less Daniel [stripped tiger] and more King Friday XIII.” In short, he took on a despotic role in children’s television. Most of his ire was thrown toward the plague of consumerism used in children’s programming. Here, there are egregious examples of consumerism, such as a commercial selling toy AK-47’s. However, it’s when the “classics” of children’s television air, Nickelodeon’s slime or Red and Stimpy, that we realize that Mr. Rogers was sort of a prude.
Yet, the film’s central question is whether Fred Rogers succeeded in his mission to educate children, a question that’s never directly answered. Sure, we’re meant to take the events of September 11th and his helplessness to translate such issues to children as a sign of his failure. Additionally, we see as more new and violent children’s television springs around him.
However, in the next scene, we see Mr. Rogers speaking to a graduate at a commencement ceremony. In tears, she exclaims how she was given confidence from Fred Rogers.
And while Mr. Rogers does confront the idea that there’s more evil in the world then he’d like to believe, when he asks the graduates to close their eyes and think of someone who helped them in their lives he causes the graduates, the talking heads, and the occupants of the theater I was in to spring covered wells of tears. To that woman who came to him to thank him for thinking she was special too, he was the face who sprung to her and many others’ minds. And in that sense, Mr. Rogers did succeed. And in many other ways, Won’t You Be My Neighbor succeeds in making us really feel like Fred Rogers’s neighbor by the best way it can: by making him human.