Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This incredible film may prove to be one of the most meaningful documentaries ever made.

Won_t You Be My NeighborDirector Morgan Neville, who previously graced us with the Oscar winning 20 Feet From Stardom (2013) and Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal (2015), has now brought to the screen a penetrating film centering on Fred Rogers entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. I saw the trailer five or six times before watching this uplifting movie and I’ve got to admit that it brought tears to my eyes each time.

Mr. Rogers became a Presbyterian minister before beginning his television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968. Finishing my third year of college at that time, this show didn’t resonate with many of my generation given our focus on school, the birth of rock ‘n roll, our focus on the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. However, Mr. Rogers’ show connected with millions of children and their parents as he focused on themes of love, compassion, caring and forgiveness.

What is most rewarding about Mr. Neville’s film is that it reveals Fred Rogers to be the same person on and off the screen. He genuinely believed that all children were special and they simply needed to learn that fact in order to live a full, rewarding life. The theater had few dry eyes as you watched the tender, engaging faces of kids as they interacted with Fred during his TV show.

While you will see a part of this scene in the trailer, wait until you watch his interaction with a little boy confined to a wheelchair because of a spinal disorder. This wonderful little lad could only move his hands with great difficulty. You will never see a more powerful moment on screen as you watch the smile on both of their faces.

Mr. Rogers composed most of the music on his show, and it always began with his entrance on stage as he proceeded to change into a cardigan and different shoes. He was living proof that a simple man can become a towering figure by embodying moral principals that we all profess to hold dear.

But what was truly surprising about this heroic figure was that he was able to quietly address penetrating social issues with the children. For example, following the death of Bobby Kennedy, he and  his lovable striped tiger puppet Daniel sought to explain the meaning of assassination. While you also saw him explain to children how a marriage could end in divorce, Mr. Rogers was at his daring best as he challenged society’s attempt to enforce segregation at swimming pools at that time of history. FrancoisClemmons+FredRogers2-PhotoTerryClarkHe courageously had an African American regular who played Officer Clemmons take off his shoes  where the two of them sat with bare feet next to one another in a children’s pool. In the process, many kids learned a lesson from Mr. Rogers that numerous Americans and adult politicians ignored.

Though Mr. Rogers died in 2003, the message delivered in his many shows proves to be just as  powerful in 2018 as when he began on a Pittsburgh TV set decades earlier. As he tried to make sure that all children thought they were special with his Welcome to My Neighborhood show, we now have a President who is doing just the opposite by separating immigrant children from their parents on our Southern border. Mr. Rogers wanted to welcome all children to his neighborhood, but President Trump wants to do just the opposite if those kids come from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala or Mexico.  This  is an inexcusable tragedy that you know Mr. Rogers would have addressed on his show.

Let me also note a moment that appears on film when Mr. Rogers testified before a United States Senate Subcommittee considering defunding PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. After giving a very simple message to a seemingly disinterested Senate Chairman, John O. Pastore, he won over Congressional approval by noting that his program helped to encourage children to become happy and productive citizens. If we don’t follow Mr. Rogers’ message concerning the treatment of immigrant families as they attempt to enter our country, we will only help transform these children in to angry adults and pay a bitter price down the road.

Fred Rogers’ ability to reach in to the hearts and minds of children reminded me of a moment when I taught the 5th grade in 1969 here in Indianapolis where all of the students were African American. Given the further fact that I was the only while male teacher in the school, I was stunned one morning when three of my female students entered our classroom crying. When I asked what was wrong, one yelled out, “We hate all white people.” When I learned that a truck full of white bigots yelled racial epithets at them as they crossed the street several blocks from school, I tried to encourage them by saying that there were a lot of stupid white people that I didn’t like.

When one responded angrily, “We still hate white people”, I looked at them and said slowly, “What about me?” Standing in stunned silence for what seemed like a minute, one looked at me and said through tears, “Well, Mr. Hammerle, we hate all white people but you.”

That was my Fred Rogers moment, and like many I will never forget it.