Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

neighborcover.0Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a lovely film about a lovely man, Fred McFeely Rogers, known to generations of children as Mr. Rogers. This gentle and loving spirit, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, exemplified everything Christianity should be but too often is not. Rogers used his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to reassure children that there was nothing the matter with them — that they were fine exactly the way they were. Many children heard this sort of thing for the first time watching the show; they didn’t get it from their teachers or even their parents. Even François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show from 1968 to 1993, and who was a grown man of 23 when he started working with Rogers, tells us that ultimately he came to see Rogers as a surrogate father.

Rogers, who died in 2003, had a soft and lilting voice and a genuine, eager smile. (The perfect person to play him in terms of how he looks and sounds is Jim Parsons, though Tom Hanks was announced in the role last January, playing a later-life Rogers around the time that Tom Junod famously profiled him for Esquire in 1998.) What the movie, unobtrusively assembled by director Morgan Neville, shows us again and again is that Rogers’ soothing yet no-nonsense demeanor was no act. The show handled tough topics — death, divorce, assassination — and refused to talk down to its young audience. Rogers strove to use language that would best and most healthily resonate with children, and he used the same plain-spoken voice with everyone regardless of age or position in life. I’ve seen a photo of him sitting with the Dalai Lama; they are both wearing expressions of perfect pure childlike happiness. At times, Rogers seemed to represent the best of every faith, every belief system.

That same childlike happiness is partly what has choked up millions who’ve seen Neighbor, including me, and I completely missed the whole Mr. Rogers thing (and Sesame Street) since our analog antenna didn’t pull in PBS during my formative years. In my teens, like every other asshole teen, I razzed the too-wholesome-seeming Rogers and laughed at the many parodies — the parodies became who he was, to me. Later in life, starting with that Tom Junod profile (he’s in the film, too), I began to appreciate who Rogers was and what he stood for — and against. His basic message spoke of the importance of self-esteem, and he must have sensed, back there in the late ‘60s when the country’s waters were starting to churn, that such a message was about to be needed. If you didn’t love yourself, he reasoned, you couldn’t love others, and that was what this life was — was supposed to be — all about. “We are here to help each other get through this thing,” Mark Vonnegut once said to his father Kurt, “whatever it is.”

That reminder of happiness, of goodwill towards all, makes us wistful and unhappy now, in this least neighborly of eras. Where have you gone, Nancy Rogers’ son? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. The viewer leans toward the screen in yearning for this avatar of decency. The spiritual leader America may have needed in the sunset of the 20th century was not in a political office or beseeching us for funds on PTL; he was off to the side on a kid’s show on public television. Rogers’ great gift was empathy so keen that he couldn’t bear to treat anyone any differently than he would wish to be treated — not even Koko the gorilla, with whom Rogers sat and communicated as best he could, and who returned his love with hers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t let us get too down about Rogers’ physical absence during our current turbulence; he would have been at odds with our culture now, but then he was always at odds with it.

rogersdalai

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