We Need Mr. Rogers Now

Let me confess. I did not grow up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, but I harbored dark, unfounded suspicions about him based on how “nice” he seemed. Now that I have seen the wonderful new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” I am ashamed of my thoughts. In these ugly times, we need a genuinely kind person to remind us what goodness means.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” directed by Academy Award winner, Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”) isn’t your standard bio-pic. I knew I needed to see it when I teared up watching the trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhwktRDG_aQ (apparently not an uncommon reaction).

RADICAL KINDNESS

Fred Rogers practiced “radical kindness” during a time of vast cultural and societal upheaval, as troubled as our own. The film is not shy about positing itself as an antidote to the forces that have been unleashed in the Trump era.

He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister but didn’t preach or proselytize. Perhaps surprising to some, he was a Republican (I can’t imagine how shocked he’d be today). He was also a puppeteer and a musician, all of which played into his national television show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Neville says that Mr. Rogers’ task was to “make goodness attractive.” “Simple and deep was the defining tone of the show but making something simple and deep is anything but simple. Fred Rogers was asking big questions: How do we care for each other? How do we respect ourselves? What kind of neighborhood should we create together?”

I walked out of the film heartbroken to see how his beautiful message—that everyone is special—was so perverted by the newly rising and raging right-wing culture warriors of the 1990s that they damned an entire generation of young people as “entitled,” and blamed Mr. Rogers for turning them into “snowflakes.”

Not only did Mr. Rogers hope to steer children toward the path of kindness, tolerance and understanding, he also saw that TV was a medium that could transform lives, but instead was becoming a vehicle to sell products to consumers, especially children. He also recognized that Saturday morning cartoons, superhero and fantasy shows that made violence look like fun were foisting unrealistic and sometimes dangerous ideas on malleable young minds.

PUBLIC TELEVISION

He started off in commercial TV early on but found his message lost there. Instead, he moved to public TV, WQED in Pittsburgh, PA, and helped build that station’s reputation. In fact, he can be applauded for singlehandedly saving funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In 1969, Mr. Rogers told a stubborn Senator, John Pastore, chair of the US Senate
Subcommittee on Communication, who had never seen his program, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger ― much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.”

Then he did something unprecedented: Mr. Rogers asked if he could read the words to a song he had written.

“What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right. What do you do?
Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag or see how fast you go? It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned the thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead ― and think this song ― “I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime … And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.”

Senator Pastore responded, “I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

SIMPLE AND PROFOUND

It’s easy to sneer at Fred Rogers’ goody-two-shoes image, his cardigan, his slow pace and speech, and his low-tech, low-brow approach to the issues of the day, tackling racism, the Vietnam war, death, divorce, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and so much more.

But this man touched lives in a profound way. Morgan Neville says, “Fred Rogers was talking about civility, about compassion, about grief and about the hard work of being human. He was talking to students, but it sounded like he was talking about the world today.”

I heartily recommend this movie to those who are heartsick about what we have become, and for those who aren’t to consider just for a moment what a kinder, gentler world might actually look like.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” opens tomorrow at Arclight Hollywood and Landmark Theatres in West L.A., with a director Q and A on Friday at 2:30. Laemmle Theatres also begin screening it on June 15, locally at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center on June 29. Don’t miss it.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online
publications.

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