Fred Rogers from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was an endearing fixture for households with children for several decades. Premiering in 1968 this year marks the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. PBS already aired it’s own tribute documentary to the late great pioneer of children television called It’s You I Like (2018) which was hosted by Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton who got his start on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? regurgitates a lot of the information from that documentary but still manages to create a very moving picture that enlightens us into the mind of Fred Rogers, the genesis of his important public television program, and most importantly into how the viewer is left to interpret the conflicted world we live in today without Mr. Rogers or anyone to provide us guidance on how we should feel when there seems to be so little love and so much evil around us. Along with that lack love, our world is much more impersonal than it was when Mr. Rogers was on our televisions daily.
The opening shot is of Fred Rogers playing piano and then speaking to the camera about modulation and how the modulation of a musical instrument leads to him discussing his desire to help children through the modulations of life. This black and white footage was from 1967, right before he started his own public access children’s show for his local Pittsburgh station. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicles the rise of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood from its humble, local beginnings to eventually entering the home of practically every child in America. It establishes how Fred Rogers the man started out as wanting to be a minster and instead of entering the seminary he used his Christian values and teachings as a way to spread love and education to children with a universal message of speaking to the camera as if it were an individual child. He looked at his television show as a real relationship between himself and a child. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has all of the staples that one would expect from a well budgeted documentary about a beloved figure in pop culture who was famous for over thirty years, and has left an impact for over fifty years. A tremendous feat for a man who passed away over fifteen years ago.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? starts off showing Fred Rogers as a pioneer for public television and a crusader for quality children’s programing. He worked to champion both throughout most of his adult life and they are both part of the legacy he left behind. They also show Mr. Rogers as a civil rights activist, not one to shy away from controversy as he made his show relevant to the themes and issues that children faced if they watched the news. His quote “love or the lack of it, is part of the root of all things”, and Rogers did his best to ensure children of all races and creeds with his values that we are all special and we are all children of God. It was ingenious of him to make that message from his teachings of Jesus Christ universal to make everyone feel that he loved them.
There are times where Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes Fred Rogers out to be flawless, like the second coming of Jesus, but the way it is edited it does show his flaws, and there are very few. It shows how he was unable to relate to certain people and programs, how he had trouble expressing his own feelings of sadness and anger, and as he got older seemed almost out of touch in certain ways as if the cause he fought his whole life for was a losing and futile battle. It makes light to a lot to myths that surrounded Fred Rogers, that he was in the military, that he was gay, that he had a volatile temper and was covered in tattoos. All of those are false, for better or worse what you saw on Mr. Rogers is basically who the real Fred Rogers was.
But as interesting as all of those anecdotes are, none of them capture the real essence of what makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor? such a powerful and emotional experience. Yes it provides terrific insight into the man and his important legacy, just as the PBS documentary did. But what makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is how it will make the viewer reflect near the final act and as the credits roll. Where are we as a society? Are we lost in the woods in a world Thomas Hobbes would have predicted where men are all “nasty, brutish and short to each other”? What have we become now that Fred Rogers has left us. There are no programs on television (or the internet for that matter) that are remotely like the simple charms and lessons he brought to families across the country. In fact, there are so few people alive in 2018 that are like Fred Rogers and project themselves in the sincere and kind manner that he always did. Knowing that it makes his legacy seem even more important and a necessity in our world today.
Early on during one of the first episodes of Mr. Rogers, the Vietnam war had just broke out and he developed a moment where his upper King Friday wanted to keep the trolley and all other visitors out for being different. The audience made gasps and groans as this happened but the eerie parallels the filmmaker created between 1968 and 2018 were more than coincidental. At first one might think the director was trying to use Mr. Rogers as a tool against President Trump for more anti-Trump rhetoric. But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is actually a window into our past and reflects how much we have changed and how much our society is regressing back to the way we used to be around the time public television was first starting over fifty years ago. He does not use Fred Rogers or any of his beloved ideals as anything other than simply stating what they stood for and how our society is missing them. It makes 2018 look like a very sad state of affairs and one that would make Fred Rogers clinically depressed. It does all of this without berating the audience with its message but through interviews and with subtle cues from the images that we see how far we have fallen and how low our societies standards for good taste and quality education and children’s television have fallen. The world needs a new Mr. Rogers, but even if he were to emerge today, would our society even accept him into our lives the way we all did for Fred Rogers fifty years ago? Sad to know that the answer to that question is that we would not allow him into our homes to spread his lessons of love and tolerance.
Instead of embedding the trailer I used this clip with Arsenio Hall that I remember from years ago and it shows him poking fun at himself yet still never betraying his values and his persona in an honest and relatable manner.