Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on June 18, 2018 @ tonymacklin.net.

The documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? is another shot to the psyche of good people.

It takes us back to a time when decency still was a prevalent value. Remember those days?

At the beginning of the film, Fred Rogers says, "I've been thinking of modulations... I'm helping children through the modulations of life." Since modulations have been destroyed in the 21st century, that seems anachronistic today.

Today I assume Fred Rogers is spinning in his neighborhood. If he saw in 2018 how children were treated as political pawns, he'd feel appalled and hopeless.

At the end of his life he asked his wife Joanne, "Am I a lamb?" He questioned whether or not he had had any influence for good.

One of the facets about growing older is the realization that human nature does not improve. Cruelty does not diminish. Fred Rogers fought to keep innocence from growing into ignorance. In many ways, that's a Pyhrric struggle.

Director Morgan Neville, who directed the wonderful documentary 20 Feet From Stardom (2013), captures the spirit of Fred Rogers, who created an inviting and instructive refuge for children on television with Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood (1968-2001). Rogers was an influential figure in our culture for more than 35 years.

As a young man, Rogers studied to be a minister, but he saw burgeoning television as a source of crucial communication for children. He realized the significance of developing curiosity and joy in the very young. That became his quest.

The film shows Rogers at his best when he was a communicator. Two of the most memorable scenes relate this. One is his appearance in 1969 before the Senate Subcommittee on Communication and its chairman John O. Pastore, who seems ready to cancel the money for Public Television. Rogers makes a fervent appeal and Pastore is moved so much he decides on the spot to continue the financing.

The second scene is when Rogers sits with the gorilla Koko and has sensitive, remarkable communication with her.

And, of course, throughout the film there are several shots of children with expressions of excited, rapt attention that may be life-changing for them.

There is some irony in Rogers' behavior, especially in his treatment of Francois Scarborough Clemmons, the African-American who played Officer Clemmons and was on the show with Rogers for 25 years (1968-1993).

Rogers was a champion for change, but he also was a businessman. When he found out that Clemmons had gone to a gay bar, he forbid him to go there, because he knew sponsors would cancel. Eventually, with Rogers' support Clemmons had a heterosexual marriage. Obviously, it failed dismally.

Rogers' acceptance had its limits, but eventually he accepted Clemmons for who he was. But it took a long time.

Mr. Rogers always seemed a bit too benign for me.

Little did I realize he was an extreme target for vicious attack.

The film has a snippet of a television host - 5 years after Rogers' death - attacking Rogers for ruining a generation, because he made its members all feel "special." Neville only uses a brief part of the 6-minute segment on this armpit of a television show. He doesn't include the female anchor calling Rogers an "evil, evil man." This spot shows that people on television often aren't special. They're just banal and mean-spirited.

Fred Rogers may have been many things, but evil was not one of them.

Was Fred Rogers "a lamb"? Won't You Be My Neighbor? suggests he really was.

But the world beats lambs. The goats, in lambs' clothing, abide.

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