I never watched more than a few seconds at a time of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and that only happened when I was channel surfing. Though I was certainly familiar with the show’s opening sequence, no doubt thanks to Eddie Murphy’s hilarious parody of him on TV’s SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in the late ’70s, I never knew anything more than that until I watched the new documentary, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? by Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 FEET FROM STARDOM, THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS).
Fred Rogers was as unlikely a cultural icon as you can imagine. Ordained as a Presbyterian minister, he saw that his calling would be through the then young medium of television. Unhappy with the violence and slapstick that was prevalent in children’s TV programming (he’d no doubt be disgusted at many of today’s cartoons for children), he began writing and performing for children’s shows in the Pittsburgh area where he called home. In 1962, his first TV show, Misterogers, debuted on Canadian television and ran for a few years there. He then returned to Pittsburgh to launch his next project Misterogers’ Neighborhood, which was later called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, on a regional public television network. The show went national in 1968 and ran until 2001.
Mister Rogers was about as uncool as any grown up could be. With his trademark zippered cardigan sweaters and blue sneakers, nerdy looks and gentle speaking manner, he was often made the butt of jokes, not just by Murphy but also by scores of professional and amateur comedians who were familiar with his show. But for young children age 2 to 5, he was their guru, quietly teaching them life lessons about kindness, tolerance, acceptance and being yourself no matter who you are. He was a man who both talked the talk and walked the walk. Following news reports of a white man who poured cleaning chemicals into a swimming pool to remove the black people who were swimming there, he did a segment where he invited Officer Clemmons, an African-American policeman who worked in his “neighborhood”, to join him cooling down his hot, tired feet in a kiddie pool. Segregationists were no doubt angered by the image of men of different colour sitting side by side engaging in such a subversive activity but kids, and their parents, loved it. It was pure genius! There’s an emotional scene in the film where the actor François Clemmons talks about his off-screen relationship with Rogers. As we learn, he was the real deal from beginning to end, preaching happiness, love, respect and self-respect to millions of children and adults alike.
To his great credit, Rogers tackled other heady topics too, including death, divorce, assassination (following the assassination of Robert Kennedy), and even the tragedy of 9-11. Each time, he acknowledged children’s concerns and fears in words and tone that they would understand, and reminded them to “look for the helpers” — the people out there who are helping make the world a better place for all.
Watching the film, it’s easy to see the director’s slant on the state of political discourse in America not to mention its leader, but it’s interesting to note that Fred Rogers was a lifelong Republican. The question begs would he be a Republican today and we’ll never know. But he was a man of strong conviction who was always trying to unite people in love and harmony. Perhaps if he would be around today, he’d be trying to get both sides to talk to each other and, more importantly, to behave like good neighbours.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? is one of the best documentaries I saw in 2018. It’s available now on Amazon Prime and iTunes. Definitely check it out!
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, January 11th at 8:30 am HK time!
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