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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, June 8th, 2018

SIFF Documentary Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Come for the nostalgia, stay for the uplifting truth about Mister Rogers

“Love is at the root of every­thing… love or the lack of it.” Fred Rogers stares direct­ly into the cam­era, look­ing slight­ly melan­choly as he fin­ish­es his thought.

Rogers, bet­ter known to gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can chil­dren as Mr. Rogers from his pub­lic tele­vi­sion show “Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood”, seemed to do every­thing with great love. This was clear from all the footage of Rogers and inter­views with friends and fam­i­ly in the new doc­u­men­tary “Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor?” which I viewed as part of the Seat­tle Inter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val.

The film opens in the­aters this week.

It was his par­tic­u­lar love and care for chil­dren that fueled him to write and star in 895 episodes of the show over the course of 32 years, from 1968 to 2001.

Rogers ini­tial­ly retired from the show in Decem­ber 2000, but after the ter­ror­ist attacks of Sep­tem­ber 11th, 2001, he was asked to come back and do some more episodes to help chil­dren and par­ents cope with the tragedy.

In “Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor” we also learn that Rogers actu­al­ly had a tele­vi­sion show before “Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood”. In 1954, he was fas­ci­nat­ed by the poten­tial pow­er of the new medi­um of tele­vi­sion and delayed his plans of going to Pres­by­ter­ian sem­i­nary to instead start a pro­gram called “The Chil­dren’s Cor­ner.”

After a while he became unsat­is­fied with that show and went to sem­i­nary. He also spent a lot of time in the 1950’s learn­ing from many peo­ple at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh that were doing a lot of ground­break­ing research on ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion and child psy­chol­o­gy.

“Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood” was what Rogers cre­at­ed based on every­thing he had learned about child devel­op­ment and from his pre­vi­ous TV work, and was impas­sioned to do it all with a sense of min­istry. “Tele­vi­sion has a chance of build­ing a real com­mu­ni­ty of the whole coun­try,” he said.

One thing that real­ly made his show unique was that they would address real issues on the show, it was­n’t just all fun and fast-paced like many chil­dren’s shows were and are. Things that were hap­pen­ing in the Neigh­bor­hood of Make Believe often mir­rored things that were hap­pen­ing in real life.

In one episode, Rogers invites the char­ac­ter of Offi­cer Clem­mons, played by Fran­cois Clem­mons, who is African Amer­i­can, to take a break and join Rogers, who is sit­ting in his yard with his feet in a chil­dren’s pool.

Rogers was incred­i­bly bold to make a state­ment like this in 1969, when pub­lic pools were one of many locales cur­rent­ly embroiled in the seg­re­ga­tion debate.

The show also often focused on emo­tions and feel­ings. Rogers firm­ly believed that “chil­dren have deep feel­ings, just the way every­body does” and that adults need to share with chil­dren that “feel­ings are man­age­able and men­tion­able.”

In one episode, Daniel Striped Tiger sings a song called “Some­times I Won­der if I’m a Mis­take,” in which he essen­tial­ly talks about being inse­cure.

He feels weak, scared, and like he is a fake. Lady Aber­lin tried to reas­sure him that he is fine as he is, that he is her best friend and she likes him.

Now most shows, if they even had a song or dia­logue as deep as the words to “Some­times I Won­der if I’m a Mis­take,” would at this point have Daniel accept Lady Aber­lin’s com­fort and feel bet­ter, and every­thing moves along all Hap­pi­ly Ever After.

But not Mis­ter Rogers.

Daniel and Lady Aber­lin each simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sing their vers­es again, then Daniel press­es her fur­ther, ask­ing if she real­ly likes him as he is.

Daniel con­tin­u­ing to doubt him­self and to strug­gling to believe that Lady Aber­lin real­ly cares for him the way he is shows how nor­mal it is for peo­ple to feel that way, and how hard it is to over­come doubt.

It was at this point in the press screen­ing of the film that I heard some gasp­ing nois­es from the man next to me. I ten­ta­tive­ly turned and looked past the emp­ty seat in between us, and real­ized that he was cry­ing.

This is why Mis­ter Rogers was so impor­tant.

He helped young chil­dren (and adults!) under­stand and deal with their emo­tions, and let them know that hav­ing strong feel­ings is not just ok, but nor­mal.

Talk­ing about what he does, Rogers said: “I give an expres­sion of care each day to each child.”

He want­ed every child to know that they are spe­cial, that each per­son is valu­able, “that you don’t ever have to do any­thing sen­sa­tion­al for peo­ple to love you.”

Rogers was sen­sa­tion­al, and he was loved by gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can chil­dren.

I high­ly rec­om­mend see­ing “Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor?” to gain a deep­er under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion for Rogers and his work, and per­haps be uplift­ed and inspired to live a more mis­sion-dri­ven life your­self.

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One Comment

  1. Had not heard about this film. I will make plans to go see it. Thank you!

    # by Pearl Whitney :: June 15th, 2018 at 10:28 AM