The True/False film festival in Columbia offers a preview of the year’s top documentary films before their official release and this year several of us from FP took in films explaining everything from terrorism, cowboy angst, the art world, and the iconic persona of Fred Rogers. I cannot claim to have much of a critical faculty as a consumer of film. I am like Jerry, of Ben and Jerry’s fame, who describes his lack of taste as accounting for the huge chunks of chocolate and nuts in their ice cream. My appreciation of film often arises from its texture without my necessarily being able to discern the nuance of how and why it impacts me the way it does. The film that aroused a mysterious depth of emotion was “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary describing, as one of his sons describes Fred Rogers, the second incarnation of Jesus. Documentary films, at their best, take a slice of life and bring out the inherent beauty, hope, love, or absurdity, of everyday life, and Morgan Neville’s film provides insight to the depth of understanding and love Roger’s was able to convey to a generation of children. Mister Rogers, patiently answering children’s questions, ultimately replying in person to over a million fan letters, taking time for everyone he comes across, was among the most decent of men. “He was such a warm, moral character,” Neville said after spending more than a year watching Rogers on tape. “He had no agenda other than goodness. I can’t think of any voice that I wanted to hear in this day and age more than his.” The sheer moral uplift of this film caught me by surprise.
The pacifist, vegetarian, mindful, philosophy, of the minister turned children’s television host and children’s advocate comes through in the message, “You are special just as you are.” As an ordained Presbyterian minister, this message clearly arose from a theology which presumes every child is created in the divine image. (At one point in the documentary one of the staff has to explain that this is a biblical teaching, as protesters imagine Mister Rogers is propagating some sort of free ride.) Fred Rogers considered television his pulpit and pictured the interchange with his young viewers as a “sacred space” through which he conveyed love and concern. Against the background of the Vietnam War, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Challenger explosion, Mister Rogers takes on these most fearsome events in the attempt to bring peace (his was an aggressive pacifism) into children’s lives. When he would see scary things on television, he says he would remember what his mother said, “always look for the helpers.” No matter how bad things are, there are always people helping.
His concerted effort to hear the smallest of voices and to relieve their fears (of going down the drain in the bathtub, of divorce, death, or getting lost) makes for a stark contrast, brought out in the documentary, with the pie throwing crudities and commercialism of television of the day. Children’s television was largely frantic cartoons and westerns centered on commercialism – with one advertisement, shown in the film, literally tossing children guns through the television screen. For a generation subjected to “Combat,” “Gun Smoke,” “Bonanza,” “The Three Stooges,” and endless animated mayhem, Mister Rogers made a singular impact, some claiming he was the most famous face on television, with his message “I like you just the way you are.”
The documentary was inspired when Neville was working on a film with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Neville asked the musician how he handled fame with such grace. Ma answered that he learned how to navigate celebrity from Mister Rogers. Neville thought Ma was joking, but the cellist explained it was no joke. He and Rogers had become friends after his several appearances on Rogers’ program and Rogers convinced Ma that fame could be used for good in the world. When Neville heard Ma’s story, he turned to YouTube and, among other clips, found Rogers’ 1969 plea to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications.
Congress, looking for ways to pay for the Vietnam War during the Nixon years, was considering cutting funding for public broadcasting and Rogers was the last of several personnel called to testify. From the clip it is clear the committee is set on cuts, until Rogers tells the legislators, “I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’” Senator John O. Pastore responds: “Well, I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goose bumps for the last two days.” In conclusion, Rogers quotes from one of his songs:
What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right. What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag or see how fast you go? It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned the thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead. . .
As Rogers speaks, the hard-bitten Senator (clearly intending a great wrong) visibly softens and melts. Pastore responds: “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.”
“Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” among other things, broke the color barrier in the person of Francois Clemmons, the first African-American to have a recurring role on a children’s TV series. “Fred came to me and said, ‘I have this idea: You could be a police officer,'” recalls Clemmons. Clemmons didn’t like the idea: “I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a high opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.” Clemmons was unsure about his role until a particular day on the set which he recalls with great emotion in the film. In an episode that aired in 1969, Rogers is resting his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day. “He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him. The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.” Clemmons says the scene touched him in a way he hadn’t expected. “I think he was making a very strong statement. That was his way. I still was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood and in the real-world neighborhood, but I think I was proven wrong,” he says.
Clemmons subsequently revealed to Rogers that he was gay and he was uncertain as to how this was received by Rogers. The most memorable day in his life, Clemmons explains, occurred the day Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” This time Clemmons noticed Rogers had been looking right at him, and after they wrapped, he walked over. Clemmons asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?” “Yes, I have been talking to you for years,” Rogers said, as Clemmons recalls. “But you heard me today.” “It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being,” Clemmons says. “That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.”
This sentiment is repeated by those that worked with Rogers and by people he happened to meet. A story not in the documentary, told by Anthony Breznican, sums up the impact Rogers could have. Breznican encounter with Rogers on an elevator tapped into a depth of emotion as he was going through a bad time. Here was the figure who had provided comfort to him as a child. He thought he had outgrown Mister Rogers, until he needed that kindness again. When he sees Rogers Breznican says: “Mr. Rogers… I don’t mean to bother you. But I wanted to say thanks.” Mister Rogers asks, “Did you grow up as one of my neighbors?” Breznican says, “I felt like crying,” and Rogers sees he is upset. “Yeah. I was.” Rogers opens his arms, lifting his satchel for a hug. “It’s good to see you again neighbor. Do you want to tell me what is upsetting you?” Rogers takes time to listen as Breznican describes his grandfather’s death. “Those things never go away,” Mr. Rogers said. Breznican describes their conversation and concludes, “I’m sure my eyes looked like stewed tomatoes. Finally, I said thank you. And apologized if I made him late for an appointment. ‘Sometimes you’re right where you need to be,’ he said. Mr. Rogers was there for me then.”
This story captures the same decent kindness conveyed in the documentary. We so seldom meet this sort of Christ-like concern. To have it modeled in this very public figure is a reminder that we need not give into the pervasive degraded meanness. As Roger’s quoted to the Senator Pastore who was about to take away the funding for public television:
It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned the thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead — and think this song —
“I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime…. And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.”
With the model of Fred Rogers, we know it is possible to be a kind, loving, man or lady. 50 years have passed since the debut of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is a much-needed reminder of Rogers’ unconditional sort of love.