Touching “Neighbor” a Vital Reminder
After seeing Morgan Neville’s wonderful new documentary about children’s television host Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I was left with a great many conflicting emotions. I regret not ever having watched the show while growing up. I had no time for such childish fare what with cool shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. I was astounded by how far ahead Rogers was in his thinking in regards to his progressive approach where child psychology was concerned. But mostly, I was left with a sense of melancholy over the fact that a show like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood would never be produced today and how much lesser we are for that.
Neville dutifully and quickly dispenses with the necessary background as we hear of Rogers’ upper middle class upbringing, how he was bullied as a child for being heavy and his later schooling, which focused on music and theology. Both of these interests would prove instrumental in developing the philosophy behind Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, which premiered nationally in February of 1968, a program that would be a mainstay on PBS and in millions of parents and children’s homes.
The heart of the documentary lies in the reminiscences of those that worked on the show as well as though who knew him personally, chief among them Francois Scarborough Clemmons who portrayed the neighborhood’s gentle police officer. Knowing full well that were it revealed he was homosexual it might derail his career, he and Rogers keeps it under wraps, a contradiction to the show’s messages of inclusion. Clemmons recounting of how Rogers resolved this for the actor is one of the film’s most moving moments.
There certainly isn’t any shortage of those, as personal anecdotes underscore that Rogers was as kind, understanding and outgoing off-screen as he was on, as well as groundbreaking in his approach to issues of the day. Racism, divorce and assassination were topics he covered on the program all with an eye towards making children understand the world around them. Much of what Rogers felt was expressed through his hand puppet Daniel the Tiger, the man’s alter ego who openly expressed doubt and fear yet also understanding and strength when necessary. This is underscored by subtle animation sequences in which we see the stripped character act as Rogers would, a gentle soul in a confused world.
Neighbor is a fitting tribute to the man but it unwittingly serves as a time capsule as well, a look back at a time in which a humble voice of reason was allowed to nurture and cherish the children that crossed his path, offering solace and understanding to them in the best way he could. When did his simple philosophy, “I like you just the way you are,” become a radical notion? While Rogers did not shirk from dealing with issues such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy or the tragedy of 9/11, I can’t help but wonder what he would make of school shootings and children being separated from the parents at our Southern borders. I can’t help but think that it’s better he didn’t witness such atrocities and that he would have been sorely disappointed in us for allowing them to occur. Yet I have a feeling he’d have done his best to help us all feel better, children and adults alike.