With my tear ducts thoroughly lubricated I write today about the new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This documentary has a release date of June 29, 2018, and is a very timely story for all grown-up viewers.
Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood ran for 32 seasons from February 19, 1968, until August 31, 2001. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood also had 17 prime time specials that ranged in topics from a Christmas special to an address after 9/11 when Fred Rogers stated his now famous line of, “Look for the helpers. To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
I sat in the darkened theatre seats with my sister who also grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and my college-aged nibblings, and we were all so moved by this movie. We left the theatre saying how loved we felt! The niece and nephew did poke fun at their mother and me for the number of tissues we consumed during the hour and a half movie. I explained it away as not just a big cry at the end; it was that one tear rolling down my cheek the entire time. It was a careful blend of a nostalgic feeling of a simple time eating cereal before school and Mr. Roger was always in the background setting the tone for the day. This documentary also highlights Fred Roger’s humanity in his beginnings as a pastor and how he used the new media of television in his mission of children. You can see his love in his eyes, and see his heart right there on his cardigan sweater, that his mother knitted for him. As my niece said it was interesting to see Mr. Rogers younger having grown up with him in the 90s, for me it was interesting to see clips from the first episode in 1968 at the peak of the Vietnam War and how King Friday XIII wanted to build a wall to keep other people out of his land. Wow, how timely that lesson! I wonder if the animated spin-off, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is addressing immigration and the southern border wall? And I wonder what new media we as educators should be using to reach our students?
Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood tackled issues head-on, and part of Fred Roger’s mission was not to sugar-coat issues but to talk to children like they are people that live in our world and hear new vocabulary. In the documentary, they show clips of Lady Aberlin, played by Betty Aberlin talking to Daniel Tiger (puppet, voiced by Fred Rogers) about what the word, assassination means. It was a relevant and heartfelt moment on the show. As was the scene when Mr. Rogers cooled his feet in a wading pool and asked Officer Clemmons, played by Francois Clemmons, a black man, to join him. At the time, racial segregation in public pools was a hot-button issue of debate in the country, and Mr. Roger’s did a small gesture that let you know where he stood on the issue. “Love is at the root of everything- all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.” Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, 2018.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? the documentary is filled with guest stars and personal interviews of the people that knew Fred Rogers the best. Fred’s wife Joanne Rogers and Yo-Yo Ma speak of the friendship they had with Fred, and Johnny Costa and Nick Tallo who are former co-workers are some of the funniest interviews that show Fred Rogers’s humor. A section of the film that I have been thinking about is when members of the PBS family are in Washington defending their funding to starch Congressmen. Fred Rogers testifies before Congress, stating that he is not going to read his prepared document of facts and figures regarding the impact on educational programming for children because the Congressman has already received the document and he trusts that he and they will read it, thoughtfully. I have been thinking of this wondering if I, as a public educator, would trust that my members of Congress are reading documents thoughtfully? This is a terrific scene in the movie as are the poignant interview moments from Junlei Li, the Director of the Fred Rogers Center outside of Pittsburgh, and between Francois Clemmons, but I don’t want to give you too many spoilers. You need to see the film yourself.
When looking up the movie on Rotten Tomatoes, it has received a 99% rating. I scanned through eight pages of reviews to find the one reviewer that did not like this movie. Apparently, Brandon Weatherbee of Brightest Young Things gave the movie a 6.6/10 and thought the movie was overly sentimental, “emotional manipulation approved by the Rogers family.” Yeah, that was the point! You can see the love in Fred Roger’s eyes and isn’t that what we all need right now? Someone to look at us lovingly for an hour and a half and tell us that we are loved? Fred Rogers said it best, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.”
Glen Gaylord from the Super Reviewer started her review with a twist on the popular song, “It’s a beautiful day in the Cinema, a beautiful day in the Cinema, won’t you go see…” I felt this same way. I love the man, I love the film.
If you have seen the film, please comment below on your feelings of how Fred Rogers was intentional in every aspect of his life. Thank you for reading!
I teach Art Education at Pittsburg State University. Here is what is going on in my classes.