Alert the National Weather Service! Hell has frozen over. Republicans, Democrats, 80-somethings, millennials, LGBTQ people, straight folks, poets, Wall Street gurus – Attila the Hun (if he were still with us) – are all crying for the same reason. What’s got so many tear ducts leaking? “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a new documentary about Fred Rogers, the beloved host from 1968 to 2001 of the children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
You likely have fond memories of Fred Rogers, who died at age 74 of cancer in 2003. If you’re like me, you may not remember how radical, how innovative “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was for its or any time. I didn’t know until I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” that Francois Clemmons, who played police officer Clemmons on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for 25 years, was the first black American to have a recurring role on children’s TV. Or that Clemmons, who is writing, “Vanity Fair” reported, a memoir called “DivaMan: My Life,” is now openly gay.
Changing from his suit and loafers into his comfy cardigan and sneakers, Mister Rogers invited us all to be his neighbors. He used puppets to help children deal with feelings that are hard to express. After Bobby Kennedy was murdered, Mister Rogers told kids what assassination meant. Above all, Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, understood that, as he said, “love or the lack of it” is the root of everything. Because he didn’t want anyone to feel excluded, Rogers didn’t use religious language on his show. Rogers’ deceptively simple message for every child (and the child in every adult) was: You are not a mistake. You are valuable and loved for who you are.
Few times have been more mean-spirited and fractious as our current era. Our country is as, if not more, polarized and hurtful, than it was on Feb. 19, 1968 when Mister Rogers introduced us to his “Neighborhood.” Over the more than 30 years that his show ran, adults turned to Fred Rogers – seeking a way to explain sad, scary things from divorce to being in the hospital to our kids. He knew that tying your shoes or bathtub drains could scare tots. Young children watched Mister Rogers because he loved and listened to them even when other grown-ups from their parents to their teachers didn’t pay attention or talked down to them.
Today, when meanness is a prized form of cultural expression and kindness is ridiculed on Twitter, we’re flocking to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” directed by Morgan Neville, who directed the doc “20 Feet From Stardom” and co-directed “The Best of Enemies,” a documentary about Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.’s feud.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” reminds us that his “Neighborhood” was radically inclusive for its era. Rogers, a lifelong Republican, and Clemmons, on the show in 1969 shared a towel after dunking their feet in a swimming pool. (At that time, pools in the South were racially segregated.)
Grace Cavalieri was a colleague of Fred Rogers when she was associate director of children’s programming for PBS. Rogers was the same off-camera as he was on-camera, Cavalieri told the Blade. “You’d be having breakfast with him, and he wouldn’t eat a thing!” she said. “All the kids in the restaurant would come by. He’d talk to all of them.”
Clemmons couldn’t be openly gay while he was on Rogers’ show. At the time when the program aired, there’s no way that he could have been out. Yet, in a moving moment in the film, he speaks of how Rogers was a “spiritual father” to him.
No film, however touching, could mend the broken spirit of our time. Yet, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” shows us how resistance to cruelty can be waged through kindness and love.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.