June 16, 2018
A confession: I was pushed to tears about four times and was otherwise misty-eyed for the full 90 minutes. A documentary about a beloved childhood hero—my childhood hero? His loving gaze and soothing voice will have you lost in the folds of your past.
The film opens with the late Fred Rogers’ musings about modulations. He sits at his grand piano and plays a few chords to demonstrate an analogy. He talks about shifts, like C to F and F to F#. Some shifts are simple, some are complicated, but they’re always easier when there’s someone there to help you and guide you. This documentary is not about Fred Rogers, but it is about his ideas on self-worth, the need to face reality with love and care, and the need for children to know their emotions are real.
The parallels of his show and the world around him are deliberate. In 1968, the puppet Daniel Tiger asks Lady Elaine to blow up a balloon for him. As she does, Daniel builds up the courage to ask “What does assassination mean?” Days before, Robert Kennedy had been killed in Los Angeles. Lady Elaine takes a moment to think and asks “Have you heard that word a lot today?” She goes on to explain “Well, it means someone getting killed in sort of a surprise way.” Daniel Tiger pauses to interpret the words much like the many children in the documentary do whenever Rogers explained things to them. He ponders the words deeply and then tries to make sense of it. “That man killed that other man,’ then after a moment, “I’d rather talk about it some other day.”
Rogers knows that the thoughts of children are deep and that they need the space to make sense of things themselves. Recognizing that the child’s anxieties about the world’s big troubles are indeed important and warrant the help of adults, that was his true north.
History has a perennial nature to it. Though it may not repeat itself, children develop themselves everyday. When they encounter the world of grown-ups, they may not yet fit into that world. But then where do they fit?
Rogers’ story is about that journey of navigation—a journey we’ve all had to live through and one that it seems Rogers would argue continues into our adult lives with just as much need for heart as ever.
Beyond the 60s, beyond 2001, the end of the show, or the end of Rogers’ life in 2003, this story comes to us at a time of great American need. Perhaps we should feel bad for all the times we didn’t do something so simple as showing kindness—and it hits us as simple because Mr. Rogers was so able to do it. The kindness and caring feels so possible, especially when reminded that the Westboro Baptist Church protested Rogers’ funeral for being too tolerant (tolerant of homosexuals).
Won’t You Be My Neighbor reminds us that Mr. Rogers life is truly a part of American history, his vision about love and virtue is powerful and his legacy is a lasting lesson. Go and see this film.