The film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” rode the double-decker bus (or in this case, the trolley) into Oxford on Friday and offered a reminder that Mister Rogers’ message of love and kindness is still applicable 30 years later.
The documentary goes behind the TV personality’s loveable cardigan, tie and sneakers to examine the life of Fred Rogers and how he became the face of the most iconic children’s education program in television history.
The film will leave viewers misty-eyed with nostalgia, wishing that Mister Rogers were here to speak to children in today’s divisive climate.
As an ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers realized he could reach far more children from a television screen than he ever could from the pulpit. This, plus his disappointment at children’s content on TV pushed him to become involved in television.
The new documentary explores Rogers’ style as a host. He never talked down to children or made them feel inferior because he “always felt that [he] didn’t need to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with the child.”
The film chronicles Rogers’ ability to tackle difficult themes on his show and explain them to children. For instance, after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Rogers’ show’s theme was death. Another episode’s theme was divorce.
The documentary also discusses the show’s groundbreaking move to be one of the first television programs to feature a black cast member.
The most striking scene from the show’s run is one where Rogers invites Officer Clemons, a black police officer, to cool his feet off with him in his pool and share his towel to dry off. The scene was a subtle protest of segregationists who would pour cleaning chemicals into swimming pools to force black people from swimming in the same pool as white people.
Amidst all his achievements, Rogers faced struggles. He feared that the show wasn’t as influential as he would like and that he wasn’t making a difference in the country. His family shared that his puppets were often representations of Rogers himself and represented what he struggled with.
In 1969, Rogers appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee after threats to cut funding for public television. What started as a somewhat hostile hearing ended in utter amazement and $20 million of funding after Rogers shared his vision for his educational program. The government was so impressed with Rogers’ approach to television, the budget for public television increased the next year.
Perhaps the best advice one could take from the film is Rogers’ advice to always pause and reflect about the people who have helped you along your journey in life, and try to do the same for others.
Take your coat and loafers off and pull on your sweater and sneakers, and ride the trolley into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” for a fresh reminder of love and kindness in today’s divisive climate.