To be sure, the film is “popular” only in comparison to other documentaries, not in relation to something like “The Incredibles 2.” But playing mostly in art houses, “Neighbor” has already sold more than $12 million in tickets and is still increasing audiences after five weeks in theaters, which makes it a major hit on the documentary circuit.
Fred Rogers, the Episcopalian minister-turned-children’s-storyteller, was such an overwhelming presence in popular culture in the 1970s and 1980s that’s it’s hard to believe there’s been an entire generation of millennials who have grown up not knowing who he was. Since his 2003 death, he has largely faded from public view. It’s been 10 years since reruns of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” were regularly broadcast.
Rogers was a product of his time, but it would be inaccurate to say that he lived in a gentler era. As the film makes clear, he developed his show in response to the violent programming that dominated children’s television at the time. And he emerged in a period that was even more brutal than our own. One of his earliest shows dealt explicitly with the issue of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination, while the Vietnam War loomed over all television programming in those days.
In a turbulent time, Rogers believed that the way to calm children’s fears was to address them directly and reassure young viewers that it was OK to be scared, but that their parents would keep them safe.
In an effort to hype Rogers’ importance, the documentary fails to acknowledge earlier shows that also helped to socialize and reassure young children. “Captain Kangaroo” and “Romper Room,” groundbreaking shows from the early days of television, were the philosophical antecedents of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
But “Captain Kangaroo” and “Romper Room” were on commercial television, which would have diminishing enthusiasm for shows that appealed to preschoolers. Network children’s programming grew increasingly aggressive and was eventually seen primarily as a vehicle for selling toys.
Rogers was important because he came along at the dawn of public broadcasting. One of the most arresting sequences is the movie is his testimony before a Senate committee in 1969 set to defund PBS. Rogers so charmed Chairman John Pastore in just six minutes that Pastore completely changed his mind about public television and restored the full funding on the spot.
It’s hard not to get a lump in your throat watching Rogers’ Senate testimony -- or any other part of the film, for that matter. When we came out of the theater, my wife said she’d been in tears the whole time.
I know what she meant. The whole movie is a meditation on what it’s like to be a young child. If you can remember your own early days -- or even if you can remember being the parent of a four-year-old -- the movie reminds us of how fraught those years can be.
It was Rogers’ contention that children are swirling with more emotions than we give them credit for: not just joy and wonderment, but also fear, anger, and sadness. He wanted to acknowledge those feelings so children could learn how to process them and grow into mentally healthy adults. Seeing how he implemented this philosophy on the show and in his direct dealings with children is actually quite moving.
It’s a sad commentary on our cynical society, however, that the documentary felt it necessary to address the question of whether Rogers was gay. He was a happily married man with two children of his own. There were no rumors of any improper extramarital activity with either gender, and yet people remained suspicious of an adult man with a natural sing-songy voice who liked to spend time with children. People mistrust those who seem too good to be true, but apparently “in real life” Rogers was exactly as patient, generous, and kind as he seemed on the screen.
The big unanswered question from the movie is whether Rogers was on the winning or losing side of history. Everyone gives lip service to his principles, but children today are exposed to more screen violence than ever before through video games, the Internet and old-fashioned television that increasingly features swearing, sexual content and violence every night.
All the more reason, then, to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It might be a losing battle to treat children with respect, but Mister Rogers can inspire us to think that it’s worth the fight.