Sunday, July 01, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

I’ve seen people propose that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye run on the same presidential ticket in 2020.  If I were to pick two celebrities, I probably would have wanted Carl Sagan for president with Fred Rogers as his running mate.  Both were great communicators.  Both were even-tempered people.  The primary difference is a balanced ticket.  Whereas Sagan dealt with science, Rogers worked more with emotion and feeling.

It actually surprised me years ago to learn that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.  He wasn’t known for bringing religion into the show, which ran from 1968 to 2001.  It was a very simple show that dealt with all manner of topics.  It was usually something simple, but there would occasionally be shows on something more serious, like assassination.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor covers Rogers’s adult life, starting with his nearly completing Seminary.  He did eventually go back to become ordained, but felt that his calling was in television.  The movie has interviews from his family and people who worked on the show.  Fran├žois Clemmons recalls what it was like being asked to play a police officer when he didn’t have a great image of police at the time.

Clemmons also recalls what it was like when someone spotted him at a gay bar.  When the news got back to Rogers, Clemmons was asked not to go back.  The main concern had more to do with advertising.  Being gay wasn’t as welcomed back then and there were certain lines the show didn’t want to cross just yet.  However, Rogers did eventually make it known that he accepted Clemmons just the way he was.  This is the only time the movie shows him being pragmatic.  I really got the sense that Fred Rogers wanted to reach children and give them a safe space.

There aren’t many revelations with this movie.  You’re not going to come out of it thinking of him differently.  The only thing that really shocked me was finding out he was a registered Republican.  However, he’s presented exactly as I would expect him to be presented.  Mr. Rogers wanted to speak to children to let them know that they were special, not in the sense of being entitled, but rather in the sense of having value.  In a sense, that kind of surprised me.  I would have thought that there was more to him, but Fred Rogers was Mr. Rogers.  Despite what others may have thought, there didn’t seem to be much more than was presented in the show.

The movie is rated PG-13, but I’m honestly trying to think of anything that would be overly objectionable.  I think it comes from some historical footage.  One clip shows a hotel owner pouring cleaning fluid in a pool to scare off African-Americans.  Still, I think most of the people seeing this movie will be adults.  It will either be the children who grew up watching the show or the parents of those children.

In a way, the documentary shows how easy it was to just watch Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.  The show was so simple, it was difficult to think that there would be any deeper meaning.  The show was very much a product of its time, but also of Fred Rogers.  He did put a lot of himself into that show, with the puppets representing different aspects of himself.  I’d say that anyone who grew up watching the show should probably watch the documentary.

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