I will admit that I have not been the greatest fan of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” over the years.
I respected the gentle PBS children’s show. But as both as a TV critic and a professor who has been teaching a course in “Children and Television” at Goucher College the last three decades, the PBS children’s show that I’ve worshiped is “Sesame Street.”
No show in the history of American TV had a more profound effect on the nation. It taught multiculturalism to successive generations in a country that was deeply racist when it arrived in 1969, one year after “Mr. Rogers” made its American debut on national TV. And “Sesame Street” helped make Barack Obama’s presidency possible 39 years later by changing the hearts and minds of many of the millions of children who watched over all those years.
But after seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a deeply touching Morgan Neville documentary about Fred Rogers that makes its TV debut Feb. 9 on HBO and PBS, I have a richer appreciation for both the man and the imaginary neighborhood he created out of the very raw materials of early television.
If you are not among those who contributed to the $22 million “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” made last year in theatrical release, I urge you to see it on the small screen this coming week. I promise it will affect you in ways few documentaries do.
One of the ways in which it most deeply affected me was in the juxtaposition of the values Rogers held and tried to share with children vs. the mainstream values of America today. Rogers’ quiet show preached love, tolerance, harmonious co-existence and, above all, a belief that children should be made to feel safe and welcome as members of a community in which they are valued.
The America we live in today, like the bulk of children’s shows on commercial channels, is loud, rude, polarized and violent, with children often being sexualized, debased and verbally and physically abused. It is impossible to watch this film and not wind up reflecting on what an unneighborly and nasty country we have become.
I suspect one of the reasons this documentary was a such a box office hit in theaters last year is that the Fred Rogers depicted in it seems the very antithesis of the man now in the White House. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, was spiritual, soft-spoken and incredibly empathetic to all living things. Our president is coarse, crude, mean-spirited and totally self-absorbed.
(I chose “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” for a column this week thinking it would make for a nice break from politics. But I was instantly reminded that there is no break from politics in an era when children are separated from their parents at the border and another federal shutdown is still just one more presidential temper tantrum away. Besides, the best popular culture is always in dialogue with the politics of its time.)
Neville, one of our finest non-fiction filmmakers, is not at all shy about exploring the politics of Rogers, the iconic show and the times in which it aired.
One show from June of 1968 featured the puppet, “King Friday XIII,” which Rogers voiced, wearing a combat helmet and demanding a wall be built around the make-believe neighborhood. The puppet-king wanted to keep out change and demanded the borders into the neighborhood be constantly guarded.
It is hard not to see the inclusion of that segment in the documentary as anything other than a commentary on the politics of today.
The sweet and gentle puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger, which Rogers also voiced, confides how frightening he finds all the blustery talk of walls and borders and war.
“I want there to be peace in the neighborhood,” he says tearfully, in what’s described in the film as a reaction to the Vietnam War, which was escalating wildly in 1968.
Another 1968 episode used the cast of puppets to try to help children deal with all the talk of assassinations in the culture after the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy.
“What does assassination mean?” Daniel asks plaintively.
There are three moments in the film that viscerally communicate the decency, profound empathy, strength and transformative power of Rogers.
One features Rogers in a 1980 episode singing a duet with Jeff Erlanger, a wheelchair-bound little boy who was about to undergo a serious and risky operation.
After chatting a few minutes with the boy, Rogers starts to sing one of his signature songs, “It’s You I like,” and the child starts singing with him — tentatively at first, but then more and more confidently and joyously.
The bond between them feels soul-deep.
The film is loaded with touching musical moments. Neville, who directed a 2014 Oscar-winning documentary about back-up singers, “20 Feet From Stardom,” uses music to tap emotions and speak to the heart in ways that words can’t.
Another bonding moment in the film features Rogers with Koko, The Gorilla. They sit thigh to thigh on the ground and sign their love for one another. The gentleness and trust of Rogers is reciprocated by Koko as she kisses his hands and pulls his arms toward her, wrapping them around her shoulders as they look into each other’s eyes.
For me, the greatest testament to the power of Rogers in his meek and humble demeanor comes in a scene featuring his testimony on behalf on PBS during a Senate hearing presided over by Rhode Island Sen. John Pastore in 1969.
The film shows Pastore, who prided himself on the kind of plain-spoken tough talk favored today by Trump, being dismissive and rude to some witnesses testifying on behalf of PBS in hopes of winning $20 million in federal support. Pastore doesn’t seem to like the idea of public broadcasting very much.
Remember, the Public Broadcasting Service was founded in 1969 and, thus, extremely vulnerable financially. With a recently elected President Richard Nixon bent on cutting funding his predecessor, President Lyndon Johnson, had proposed for the fledgling broadcast service, no money from Congress probably meant no future for public TV as we have come to know it today.
And then comes Rogers to the witness table explaining his philosophy in a modest and conciliatory but proud and firm tone.
A few minutes in, Pastore starts to thaw. By the end of Rogers’ testimony, the surly senator says, “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. It looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
Blessed are the meek.
Near the start of the documentary, Tom Junod, a magazine writer who profiled Rogers in the 1990s and became a friend, says he wonders whether the attempt by Rogers “to influence America” with his vision of kindness and love “succeeded or not.”
That’s a big question. I don’t think “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” succeeded on the scale “Sesame Street” did, in its case helping transform us into a multicultural nation that could elect a person of color as president in 2008.
I think its message of kindness and love and depiction of a quieter, more humble masculinity helped make Jimmy Carter’s presidency possible in 1976. But Carter was one term, and the culture rejected and even mocked his values as it pivoted to Ronald Reagan and his more bellicose vision of “Star Wars” technology and confrontation with the Soviet Union in 1980.
Maybe after the transgressive behavior of Trump and society’s ongoing #MeToo deconstruction of the evils of patriarchy, we will be ready for a version of masculinity closer to that of Mr. Rogers.
“Will You Be My Neighbor?” has certainly done its part to make Rogers and the values he represented part of the national conversation about how we can be better than we are today.
And with a film starring Tom Hanks as Rogers scheduled to premiere in October, the conversation is likely to get wider if not deeper.
“Mr. Rogers Neighborhood “ has not yet been culturally transformative the way “Sesame Street” was.
But the Gospel According to Fred is still being preached — and definitely finding more and more followers in these troubled times.
David Zurawik wrote this piece for The Baltimore Sun.