Thursday, June 21, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

For decades Mister Rogers' Neighborhood filled the public airwaves with television aimed at young children and a focus on allowing children to be themselves and a core belief that each of us is unique and special. It was created and designed by a seminary student named Fred Rogers who was looking to for a way to use television to teach an audience with a slow-paced show concerned with connecting individually with his core audience in a way which was very much the antithesis of your average children's program focused on slapstick, action, and (often blatant) consumerism. The documentary from Morgan Neville takes a look at the man's life and legacy which had a profound impact on generations who grew up in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.

Other than touching lightly on how Rogers got into television, and some of his own childhood issues which informed his view of the world, the documentary focuses mostly on the man's life work and the television show without diving too deeply into his personal life. If there's one lesson the film does impart, it's that Fred Rogers was the same person in real life as he was in television.

Filled with interviews from friends, family, and those who worked for years on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, along with clips from the show and various interviews done over the years with Rogers himself (who passed away in 2003), Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a celebration of the man's work and a hopeful cry that others like him exist in the world and can help make it a better place tomorrow than we know today. Over the film's 94-minute running-time we'll learn about the show's puppets, where they came from, and why it was so important for the show to impart real-life lessons along with allowing time for the neighborhood of make believe.

Despite its creator's strong Christian leanings, the show didn't have an overt Christian message or try to convert its viewership. Rogers didn't preach, other than to offer an open and honest view of humanity as basically good, with the understanding that those good impulses needed to be strengthened and reinforced. And the show didn't shy away from tough subjects as episodes dealt with death, divorce, racism, and dealing with anger, self-doubt, and insecurity, all of its viewers had questions about and could relate to.

The film touches on, but mainly skirts around, the controversy of Rogers' message that his message that every child was special somehow ruined children by raising an entitled generation. The ridiculous belief is easy enough to rebuff simply by examining the man's life work dedicating to helping children and serving as an ambassador for PBS. A point the documentary does raise, but isn't able to offer as easy and answer to, is just what is Rogers' legacy? In a country more politically-fractured than ever before, did his lessons of acceptance and understanding ultimately fall on deaf ears? One of the documentary's most memorable clips features Rogers testifying for funding to save the fledgling public network by speaking frankly and honestly about children and the importance of understanding and providing for their needs and winning over a political adversary with nothing more than empathy, common sense, and a valid argument. We could all use a little more of Mr. Rogers today.

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