won’t you be my neighbor
a world-changing idea
Lisa J Rosenberg
Script Writer & Journalist
The sleeper hit of this summer’s movie scene, a landscape bursting with superheroes and catastrophes, is a quiet documentary that fairly glows with integrity. Won’t You Be My Neighbor presents the life’s work of Fred Rogers, a gangly, open-faced children’s TV show host, whose episodes for decades welcomed young children to a fictitious neighborhood. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, launched in 1963 on WQED, Pittsburgh, and aired nationally from 1968 to 2001.
During the early years of television, when children’s fare tended to range from the saccharine and sappy to Punch and Judy-inspired violence, Rogers forged a profoundly divergent path. Through simple, emotionally true stories employing made-up characters, puppets he voiced, live actors, and special guests, his programs were grounded in respect for his young viewers. Rather than advancing the notion that agency in the world derived from one’s ability to trick, impress, or conquer, the episodes he created taught children that all beings, living or imagined, have inherent dignity and are worth of respect. “Inclusion” was superfluous to his vocabulary, because inclusion was embedded in the lived world of his television neighborhood.
An ordained Presbyterian minister whose young television audience became his flock, Rogers gained entrance into the hearts of children through episodes that spoke to their deepest feelings about the world and their vulnerability within it. His work was nothing less than a spiritual mission to address and heal the human spirit. As a fellow minister says on-screen, “He considered the space between the television screen and young children to be very holy ground.”
The film opens with Rogers at the piano – a wellspring of emotional and creative expression since his own childhood, which he’ll later intimate was marked by illness and an abiding loneliness – speaking of his intention to help children through what he calls the “difficult modulations of life.” He demonstrates the reach between some chords on the piano – we can hear the discordant stretch – in explaining that children need a trusted adult to hear out their fears, anxieties, and confusion through life’s inevitably difficult passages.
Later in the film, we watch his testimony before a congressional committee bent on cutting funds for public television. He tells the committee that his programs intend to teach young children that their feelings, even the dark and disturbing ones, are “mentionable and manageable.” His most consistent theme song, which says in part, “It’s you I like, the way you are right now, the way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you,” reflects his unwavering embrace of unconditional love – of loving the individual regardless of his or her faults. “What that ultimately means,” says Rogers in the film, “is that you don’t have to do something sensational for people to love you.”
Through episodes that celebrated inquiry and curiosity, the world of the imagination and the world of the very real, he quite deliberately addressed the wonder very young children have about the world. Through the gentle struggles of puppet and live characters to understand the complex passages of life, Rogers also anticipated children’s hurts and fears, addressing difficult emotions and intimate life situations. His program took on not just ordinary childhood difficulties, such as bullying and getting lost, but also events that overwhelm adults and that in some cases, overwhelmed the country. These included death, divorce, war, and assassination. The program began during a turbulent era in American history, which traversed the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the ongoing struggle for civil rights, and culminated in the year of the 9/11 attacks.
Some of Rogers’ most profound performances were also his simplest – such as sharing a wading pool on a hot day with the friendly neighborhood postman who, by chance, was African American. This, in an era when many African American children, prohibited from sharing public swimming pools with whites, never learned to swim. Over and over, throughout the film and throughout the decades of his time on the air, Rogers hewed to a direct, person-to-person approach, suggesting in essence that the big problems of society might be solved by repeated acts of person-to-person respect, empathy, and compassion.
One episode, aired during the Vietnam War, showed the puppet King Friday resisting all calls for change, and building unsurmountable walls topped with barbed wire. Echoing the protests of American youth at the time, characters in the episode floated balloons with messages of love, peace, tenderness, and peaceful coexistence over the wall. Though Rogers’ programs avoided directly litigating political conflicts, or suggesting that deep divisions were easily resolved, they consistently advocated for the now almost quaint act of listening to one another.
Criticized in his later years for contributing to a generation of children who felt entitled, and for promoting the idea that the privilege of being loved need not be earned, Rogers was adamant in arguing that unconditional love was not only deserved, but transformative. “The greatest evil,” he insisted, “is those who would try to make you feel less than who you are.”
Pointedly addressing the camera in the film, Rogers declares, “Love – is at the root of all learning…all parenting…all relationships… Love – or the lack of it.” At this point in the film, the camera holds on his face, perhaps reflecting on episodes from his own past, when an absence of love made him value its gift all the more when it finally arrived.“Love – is at the root of all learning…all parenting…all relationships… Love – or the lack of it.” - Mr. Rogers Click To Tweet
Though Rogers at times seems almost too good to be true, with his folksy appeal and decidedly unflashy sets and wardrobe, throughout the film, those who knew him best express that he was as real as his television persona, and just as genuine as what he preached. One says that his example suggested that, person by person, it was possible to build real community out of an entire country. “The only thing that ever changes the world,” Rogers reflects toward the end of the film, “is when someone gets the idea that love can abound.”
In the current political landscape, across the United States and in many societies across the world, Fred Rogers’ abiding life lessons – of listening to others, of promoting mutual dignity and respect, and of loving the stranger as one’s neighbor in the most universal human sense – seem in woefully short supply. In the present-day atmosphere of online shouting, deafening opinions and made-up news, the simplicity of Rogers’ invented neighborhood – a place where all of us belong and are welcome to flourish – represents a lost virtue we are sorely in need of reclaiming, for ourselves and for all the children to come.