Movie Review – Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
At first, Morgan Neville’s documentary felt like it might be a straight indictment of the Trump administration and a repudiation of the incivility and toxic atmosphere Trump’s presidency has fostered. Neville profiles Fred Rogers who was the creator and star of the TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Rogers was an exemplar of civility and niceness. However, at one point, Rogers takes a very anti-consumerism position and what’s put on screen is a commercial possibly from the 1960’s of children playing with toy guns. Given that Rogers was a lifelong Republican, the political party most in support of guns and more of them, it’s very pointed to have Rogers’ message of peace, love and veritable disgust of war and its instruments juxtaposed against images of guns. However, we don’t get an actual position on the 2nd Amendment. Rogers might have been anti-consumerism but he still could have been very pro-gun.
We do see that on Rogers’ program, he would directly address topical, news stories like the Vietnam War, RFK’s assassination and divorce. His approach was to parrot the emotions of children, mainly their fear and confusion, and try to mollify them with soft-spoken consolations but also genuine explanations. In general, his theme centered on dealing with grief by using assuring platitudes. He was a Presbyterian minister but thankfully he didn’t seem to use TV as a method of proselytizing. He never revealed his ideology directly through his program with the exception of what he didn’t show.
The true source of homophobia has come from religion and Rogers had a gay man as an actor on his show. However, Rogers never allowed any homosexuality displayed on the air. The Stonewall riots happened in 1969 the year after his show premiered. The HIV/AIDS epidemic happened in the 80’s. Same-sex marriage was a key issue during the 2000 Presidential election, the year before Rogers show ended for good, but for Rogers not to do a show on gay love being just as valid as any other love or for Rogers not to do a show on the plight of gay people during the AIDS crisis proved a kind of cowardice. Even Sesame Street had a character that directly addressed HIV and AIDS. Rogers though lacked the courage of his convictions to be bold enough to be a so-called better example for gay children. Some of whom I’m sure watched his show.
What is perhaps most offensive is that Rogers did think he was better than everyone else or that his example was so vital. His subtle arrogance is amplified by Neville’s montages. Rogers apparently believed that children’s television or children’s programming was basically garbage or what’s described as too loud and implied as too violent. Rogers seemed to suggest his show was the only port in the storm and Neville’s montages even seem to confirm this argument from Rogers, which is patently false.
First of all, Neville’s film makes it out as if Rogers’ program was so innovative or revolutionary, or as if there was nothing like it, which is also patently false. Rogers’ creation was essentially a puppet show. In the decade and more before his show premiered, the Emmy Awards frequently recognized puppet shows for children like Time For Beany (1949), Kukla, Fran and Ollie (1947), Howdy Doody (1947), Captain Kangaroo (1955) and The Shari Lewis Show (1960). If anything, by the time Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came around in 1968, it was already derivative of about half-dozen shows that were already on the air.
Neville’s documentary doesn’t place Rogers’ show in its proper context. It doesn’t mention those aforementioned, puppet shows, which paved the way. Doing so might not support Rogers’ supercilious idea about his own show. This point is underlined when Neville’s film reveals Rogers’ reason for returning to the airwaves after going on hiatus in 1976.
In 1978, Rogers continued doing his show after a two-year break and he did so in reaction to the release of Superman (1978). Allegedly, there was news reports of a child who jumped off a roof thinking he was the caped hero from Krypton. Rogers believed it was his job to go back on the air to do an episode, specifically addressing this incident. Yet, apocryphal stories of children doing things like that surrounded the TV series Adventures of Superman (1952), which ended a decade before Rogers’ show. The animated series Super Friends (1973), featuring Superman, had been on the air concurrently to his show, leading up to that incident, so I don’t get the urgency. How many children were jumping off roofs? One such example doesn’t rise to the level of a political assassination or even something like divorce, which was more common-spread. Rogers instead seemed driven by some kind of privileged, white-savior complex.
Now, I don’t object to Rogers doing an episode teaching children to distinguish what they see on TV from reality and that they can’t actually be Superman, but the tone of Rogers is very arrogant as to say directly to camera that others don’t know what’s right for children and that he’s the only one who knows what’s right for children. That’s almost an exact quote from him. Yet, there’s a cognitive dissonance in that he didn’t want children mimicking things on TV by telling them to mimic something on TV, namely himself.
But, if Rogers should be commended for anything, it should be for the introduction of black singer François Clemmons who played Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, probably the first African-American to have a recurring role on a children’s series. One particularly significant moment was in 1969 when Rogers and Clemmons did a scene where they washed their feet together in a tiny pool, a response to protests against segregated, swimming pools in that time. One particularly nasty incident of racial discrimination happened in 1964 at a motor lodge in Florida. I’m glad Rogers did even that small act to counter such discrimination, but while a positive image like that is very much appreciated, let’s not pretend it was anywhere near as revolutionary as the more iconic, interracial kiss between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek the year prior.
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.