The whole world seems to be sick and getting sicker. News of violence, tragedy, and political unrest runs at a pace of daily bombardment. Modern media allows instant and constant communication, but in the cacophony of millions of voices screaming at once, meaning is lost. Something fundamental feels missing, and in that void hatred grows. That ever-spreading sense of anger and hatred is contagious, and people are beginning to completely refuse to acknowledge others as fellow human beings. But there was a voice, once, whose singular purpose in life was to use media as a tool to spread a message of love and compassion. The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? remembers the life of Fred Rogers, and tells the story of how his scrappy low-budget children’s program became a beacon of positivity for several generations. This reminder of Rogers’ message comes at a time when it feels like we need it most.
The story of Fred Rogers is one of humble beginnings. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? begins with the tale of how Rogers initially began his career as a minister for the Presbyterian Church. During a vacation from ministry school, Rogers discovered the newly budding medium of home television. He immediately recognized it as a tool that could be used to educate children. The offering of programming at the time disheartened him, as most shows were crude and slapstick. Rogers felt that he could do better. But rather than use television as a way to evangelize children with gospel, he broke the principles of Christianity down to their most fundamental core: love thy neighbor just as you love thyself. He conveyed this message to children by demonstrating empathy towards others of all shapes and sizes. He showed tolerance during an era where civil rights movements were raging in the streets. He sang a message of, “I like you as you are.” Even more importantly, he strove to show kindness and compassion towards those who are different from you. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? gracefully demonstrates Rogers’ message through a personal and heartfelt reflection on the man himself, and the dedication he had towards teaching children emotional intelligence.
In a sea of programming that used increasingly bombastic imagery to compete for children’s attention (often with the intent to market a product), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was rare in its patience and deliberation. The show was purposefully slowly paced, often meditating on long periods of silence. In that way, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was uniquely personal. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? conveys Rogers’ powerful ability to present on camera as though he were speaking to each and every child watching individually. In this way, he was able to communicate difficult messages to very young children. His program often discussed war, death, divorce, anger and insecurity, in a manner that was honest and never demeaning towards a child’s ability to process complex emotions. It was his goal to teach children that understanding, processing, and communicating their emotions is strong, healthy, and worthwhile. In this way, he was a champion of early development and mental health. In what may have been the turning point of his career, Rogers testified to a 1969 senate hearing on the importance of the education of emotional intelligence for young children, and secured 20 million dollars in state funding for PBS. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? recalls this famous moment with powerful effect, and demonstrates Rogers’ inarguable importance in the history of modern education.
What began as a micro-budget production for local Pittsburgh broadcast quickly became a national phenomenon for PBS. With national attention, however, came opposition and mockery. Even in his prime, Rogers’ unflinching idealism was met with skepticism. He was parodied by comedians, many portraying him with a secret violent or pedophilic dark side. His message was accused of polluting young minds by teaching them that they do not need to try to be special. Rumors even spread that Rogers’ had served in the military as a Navy Seal or that he was secretly gay. The tragedy of this reception is that such a pure message of love and compassion is met with skepticism and cynicism. Rogers presented himself as so humble and modest, that a number of his opponents immediately assumed he had something to hide. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? confronts this reaction through interviews with friends, family, and members of the Neighborhood cast and crew. No, he was never in the military. No, as far as they knew, he wasn’t gay. And he certainly would never do anything to hurt a child. But these interviews do reveal a more human side to Rogers, one of insecurity and anger. They show how much of Rogers’ vulnerabilities were actually written directly into the show, as he used the puppet character of Daniel Striped Tiger to discuss his own doubts and weaknesses. Through animation, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? personifies Rogers as Daniel, and shows the human side of a man that was often at times presented as near Christ-like in his purity. These moments are deeply touching, and reveal Rogers’ quiet humility to be much more than a character he played on television.
Moreover, these moments are a stark reflection on a heartbreaking national trend, one where irony and cynicism are so deeply ingrained in society, that the natural reaction to any message of love or peace is met with mistrust. A society where survivors of tragedy are labeled as “crisis actors,” with an agenda, or where refugees of foreign conflicts are treated as potential threats or as leeches looking for handouts. This reaction comes from a place that has missed all of the fundamental teachings that Rogers worked so hard to convey. It feels like we could all use a reminder of the kind of emotional intelligence and empathy that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was able to communicate to even the youngest of minds. In that way the timeliness of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? cannot be overstated. This documentary is a powerful and solemn reminder of a man who, more than anything, just wanted people to understand and treat one another with compassion. It is a reminder that we need now more than ever.
Co-Head of Podcasting
Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.