Fred Rogers: Under his guidance, children’s television became a new kind of ministry, one that utilized creativity, fun, and the weirdly surrealist play employed by the very young to make sense of the world.
By Dorothy Woodend
Published 2 Jul 2018 | TheTyee.ca
SOMETIMES THE RIGHT FILM COMES AT EXACTLY RIGHT MOMENT,
After a week of unrelenting horror in the U.S. — journalists murdered in their workplace, children weeping in kennels, the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, the impending giant leap backwards for women, people of colour, and LGBT folk, a person needs something to remind them there is still goodness in the world.
Where is Mister Rogers when you need him?
The man may be gone, but Morgan Neville’s new film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a powerful riposte to the cascading darkness that threatens to consume mind and body.
Strangely enough, many of the issues that the film tackles are the very same that have bloodied the news these past few weeks. Violence and intolerance have run together in a river of ongoing malaise that feels corrosive and almost unstoppable. A flood from Hell, you might call it. The news that a gunman had killed five people at a newspaper office in Maryland was only the most recent horror. And to be honest, after witnessing weeks of head-spinning insanity from our neighbours to the south this latest atrocity barely registered. In the face of what feels like a never-ending onslaught of sadness and horror, you start to go numb.
I wasn’t expecting to gain any kind of apotheosis or epiphany from watching Neville’s documentary about Mister Rogers, but that’s precisely what happened. Life is weird that way.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is in most aspects a fairly conventional biopic, outlining the main events of Fred Rogers’ life (childhood, education, work and family), but in amongst the anecdotes and interviews are several scenes that gently crack open your rib cage, remove your heart and touch it back to life. The film is a reminder, and a most necessary one, that kindness, gentleness and love are powerful. It could not come at a more needed moment than this one.
As Mister Roger asserts in an early interview: “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen becomes who we are.”
Fighting power with humour, graciousness and civility of the highest order.
But as his friend journalist Tom Junod notes, “The question that I think of a lot, is whether his [Rogers] attempt to influence America succeeded or not.” The question hangs over the film. His life’s work seems terribly fragile in the face of current events, but there is a curious (quintessential) American flintiness in evidence. You can see this same quality in people like Rebecca Solnit, Amy Siskind, Amy Goodman and Maxine Waters, people who are fighting power with humour, graciousness and civility of the highest order.
Fred Rogers started his career at the dawn of the television era, when the novelty of the thing (the idiot box, as my grandfather liked to call it) was as bright and shiny as a new penny. As the film indicates, Rogers was initially bound for the seminary before he got the notion that television could be used as a radical tool for education. Children’s television became a new kind of ministry, one that utilized creativity, fun and the weirdly surrealist play employed by the very young to make sense of the world.
Despite the softness of his delivery — fuzzy sweaters, comfy shoes — Fred Rogers possessed a formidable will, a determination that kept him at a constant weight (143 pounds) throughout his entire adult life. The show, in keeping with the resolute and forthright approach of its creator, dealt with the most profound and painful things of life — war, assassination, divorce, loss and death — with calmness, honesty and compassion.
Max King, Rogers’ biographer, relates how writers such as Dr. Benjamin Spock and child psychologist Margaret B. McFarland were at the vanguard of early childhood education, a new social movement that also came to incorporate Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with its dedication to elucidating and contending with the fears and difficulties of childhood.
King Friday wants a wall
As the show’s producer notes, real conflict was always at the centre of the narrative. The first week that Mister Rogers Neighborhood aired, it took direct aim at the Vietnam War with an episode dedicated to the character of King Friday XIII building a wall to stop the rate of change. “Because,” as he explains, “we’re on top.” (Sound familiar?)
As one of the people interviewed in the film notes, “The parallels between what was happening in the Neighborhood and what was happening in the real world were uncanny and undeniable… And that was the first week, that’s how it got started!”
That Mister Rogers dealt with seemingly intractable human problems with mangy old puppets, cheaply built sets and funny voices is curious enough, but what is even more interesting in that it actually worked. Daniel the Tiger, King Friday XIII, Queen Sara, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Henrietta Pussycat and X the Owl dealt with fear and pain, and in so doing gave children the means and the tools to do the same. Human dignity was especially important to Rogers who employed silence and slowness to contend with the modulations of life.
As the film indicates, the reaction to the show was immediate and enormous. A Mister Rogers’ Day brought out massive crowds of parents and children who circled the block, simply waiting for a glimpse of the man.
Like Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s film RGB, Neville’s documentary is another portrait of an iconic figure who encompassed a number of divisions and complexities. A life-long registered Republican, and a deeply devoted Christian, Rogers was nevertheless devoted to compassion, inclusiveness and ally-ship before there was even such a term.
When Francois Clemmons, a gay black opera singer, took on the role of Police Officer Clemmons in the show, he was reluctant to embody a personage that he describes as “the most dangerous person in the neighbourhood.” A scene of the two men paddling their feet together in a wading pool aired on May 9, 1969, in time with a rash of violent incidents across the U.S. as people of colour attempted to desegregate swimming pools.
I love you just the way you are
But it was the much more personal issue of sexuality that forged a lifelong friendship between the two men. As Clemmons dealt with being a gay man, he recounts a conversation with Rogers. “On the show he would say, I love you just the way you are… One day, I said are you talking to me, and he said, ‘I’ve been talking to you for two years, and you finally heard me today.’ That’s when I knew I loved him. No man had ever told me he loved me like that. I needed to hear it all my life. My dad never told me, my stepfather never told me. From then on he was my substitute father.”
The film is replete with larger moments in U.S. history that are reminders of just how long the struggle for justice and equality has been going on. Footage of novelist and scholar Ralph Ellison speaking about the U.S. people gaining a sense of themselves as a nation helped usher in the age of public television. But under the aegis of former president Richard Nixon, who was looking for money for the Vietnam War, PBS was threatened with a total loss of funding. Fred Rogers took the Senate floor to speak plainly about the need for trust and expression of care for children and secured US$20 million in funding for public television.
The issues that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood tackled at the program’s outset are still the same stuff we’re dealing with today, only more malevolent than ever before. Loss and destruction, racism and violence were all tackled, often in the form of particularly rumpled little sock puppet named Daniel the Tiger who stood in for the person of Mister Rogers himself.
Hi kids! We’re going to do a week on death
After a brief stint making programming aimed at adults, Rogers returned to the neighbourhood to make a series of thematically based episodes that dealt with death, divorce and loss. As one of the cast member states, the audacity of such an idea — “Hi Kids! We’re going to do a week on death!” — was not lost on those directly involved in the creation of the show.
As Mister Rogers became a cultural trope, easily imitated by the likes of Eddie Murphy, Johnny Carson and SCTV, his own sense of purpose took on a larger scope. Whenever a national tragedy occurred, Rogers would be enlisted to explain to children what was actually happening and how to deal with it in a way that was gentle, clear and brave. Or, in his own words: “Sometimes we need to struggle with a tragedy to understand the gravity of life. Love is what keeps us together and afloat.”
Dealing with events was one thing, but the show often plumbed even deeper levels, examining children’s feelings of self-worth, identity and value. An interview that Mister Rogers did with Jeff Erlanger, a little boy who had undergone multiple surgeries for a tumorous growth and was in a wheelchair at the time, is one of the most loving things I’ve ever witnessed on television.
A gentle call to action
Goodness was a quality that Fred Rogers embodied all his life, and it permeates the film, elevating the material and the homely timeline of birth, work and death into something else. Call it a gentle call to action. This piercing sweetness has a way of breaking through concrete, like a slender wand of green, inching its way forward through darkness and impenetrable forces to find a way towards the light.
Love can abound and can be shared. Nothing makes this more explicitly clear than when Mister Rogers interviewed Koko the Gorilla. There is something magical at work in this scene, as this unlikely pair of primates cuddle and touch and communicate easily across the interspecies barrier. Rogers’ critics were not nearly as gentle as an 800-pound gorilla. Respect for childhood with its sense of agency was extrapolated by media into entitlement and narcissism. Mister Rogers was implicated in helping to create a generation of children who thought they were special and important. But as one of the people interviewed in the film states, “If you don’t believe that everyone has inherent value, you might as well go against the fundamental notion of Christianity that you are the beloved son or daughter of God.”
So, here we are. As the evangelical types remain largely silent in the face of Trump’s atrocities, the very notion of human dignity, integrity and goodness seems in question. But what really changes the world? As Mister Rogers stated, “What is essential in life is invisible to the eye.” But in some cases, it is clearly visible.
The film’s final coda is a resounding reminder that love and gratitude will abide even in the darkest moments. The narrative is turned back on itself as the director asks each of the people interviewed to talk about the people they are most thankful for, people who helped them, taught them, sang to them, played with them, loved them into better, bigger, brighter ways of being.
What are you going to do?
It is a daunting thing, at the moment, to find a way to mend the split, to look for something positive, but as Mister Rogers’ mother told her son, even in the most tragic and terrible circumstances you can always find people who are helping. They are out there. The army of ordinary folk, who have shown up at airports to sing to refugee children, who protest in front of the White House. All the journalists who put out an issue of the Capital Gazette even after the newsroom murder of five of their colleagues.
The question the film leaves you with is not what would Mister Rogers do in this current moment, but, “What are you going to do?” As one of Fred Rogers final television addresses stated, in the ongoing struggle to overcome evil, the precedent of Tikkum olam holds forth. “We all are called to be repairers of creation, to your neighbour and to yourself.”
So, onwards, gentle people. It’s time to break out the sock puppets and go to war!