Morgan Neville’s new documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, reminds us that the television icon was an ordained minister ... and then shows us protesters at his funeral predicting his damnation. It tells us that he was a lifelong Republican ... and then shows conservative pundits roundly condemning him for helping create an environment where children’s self-esteem was respected and nurtured.
Fred Rogers, the ultimate hip-to-be-square icon, did not change all that much in the 35 years between the premiere of his iconic show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in 1968 and his death in 2003. But we sure did. The film underscores how much we lost when we lost Rogers by making us feel how much those cultural changes have accelerated in the 15 years since his death.
It seems to be a given in today’s polarized landscape that such changes are cheered or lamented according to one’s ideological affiliations. Public figures who transcend political, racial, and cultural divides are increasingly few, and those who generally united us in the past are reconfigured to make them more palatable to our current views, when they’re not being reevaluated and eviscerated for not falling in line with those views.
But for most of us, extremist groups and pundits aside, Fred Rogers’s reputation has survived intact. That says something about the man he was.
Transforming a Medium and a Culture
In March 2000, Christianity Today ran a cover story about Rogers, equating adults who evaded the call to love their neighbor with the self-justifying expert in the law who interrogated Jesus and prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan. The 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (which, in a bit of historic irony, featured King Friday building a wall around his kingdom in its first episode) has prompted a new outpouring of affection and appreciation for Rogers and his work. But as the documentary illustrates, a large part of the current wave of appreciation has more to do with Rogers being ahead of his time than with his being a symbol of a simpler past.
To cite just one example, the film cuts between scenes of Rogers soaking his feet in a plastic pool alongside a black actor and footage of whites throwing bleach into public swimming venues that had recently been integrated. Sometimes a demonstration of solidarity with the oppressed and compassion for the persecuted makes a greater impact than any laws, sermons, or tweets. Rogers’s television show may be wrongly remembered in some quarters as innocuous pabulum, but its host was actually quite brave, talking to kids about topics like divorce, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the explosion of the space shuttle, and trusting that, with loving guidance, they could handle it.
Part of what made Rogers enduringly successful is that he viewed the television show as his ministry rather than simply as a platform for his message. “I got into television because I hated it so,” he once admitted. But after earning his divinity degree in 1962, he had realized that the medium would be a “fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen." Producer Margy Whitmer explains in the film that Rogers’s formula was to “take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite.” That’s a great quip, but even more, it is a powerful reminder of the potential for Christians to transform their industry rather simply conform to it.
As Joyce Millman wrote in 1999 when the show had been on the air for 30 years, “Rogers has resisted merchandising, razzle-dazzle, fads (though he did break dance once on the show) and technological flash ... reasoning that children’s basic needs don’t change with the decades.” That focus on the things that transcend time helped to make the show timeless.
Memory of Love
I spent most of the last half of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? recalling J.B. Phillips’s 1952 devotional classic, Your God Is Too Small. “God will inevitably appear to disappoint the man who is attempting to use Him as a convenience, a prop, or a comfort, for his own plans,” he reminds us. The God we construct that is in perfect alignment with our political and social causes is an illusion; God as he is challenges us and convicts us in our complacency and self-righteousness.
Similarly, we tend to remake God’s servants into caricatures of themselves so as to be easier to embrace or dismiss. Even Fred Rogers wasn’t perfect, and this film doesn’t make the mistake of pretending that he was (though as Aisha Harris of Slate reassures us, “There’s no bombshell to be found here, no #MeToo-like revelations”). But it does hold him up, deservedly, as a good example to encourage and inspire us, helping us to see both his faults and our own in better perspective.
In 15 years of reviewing films professionally, I can’t recall ever having heard as many sniffles and sobs as I did when Won’t You Be My Neighbor? played to a packed house at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Perhaps each viewer was crying for Rogers himself, but I suspect that a fair number were actually crying for themselves—some for their inner or remembered child who had been helped by a smiling man and a kind word; some for their present, adult selves whose best memory of a loving, caring, nurturing, accepting Christian authority figure was a fading but not yet erased memory.
In a moment when many Christian leaders are being called to account for failing to demonstrate love, that example can show us a better way.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is a professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, and III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.