Sometimes, films come around that really move you.
The documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” fits the bill.
You learn insightful items like that Fred Rogers, the creator of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” basically saved public television, through his May 1969 congressional testimony. That Rogers basically lived out in the show through the character Daniel Tiger (making the related current show more meaningful). That Rogers wasn’t considered kindly enough as a child.
It was pretty funny to hear Rogers’ son describe his father as “the second Christ.” Clearly, being the son hasn’t been the easiest thing for him.
It’s nothing short of inspiring to be reminded of Rogers’ commitment to children, to providing programming that taught them of their value. As the documentary points out on several occasions, the programming stood opposite from the type that left them to laugh at the expense of others and didn’t do anything for their own self-worth.
The documentary is honest: it talks about how Rogers, in his older years, lived out more through the character of King Friday XIII, who demanded things be his way.
But it also meant that he had a public profile, one that he used to encourage others even though it was hard for him, as he did after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
But who was inviting a black man (“Officer Clemmons”/Francois Clemmons) to wash his feet in the same bin as him exactly when there was rage about African-Americans being in the same swimming pool as whites? Who was singing in acceptance of Clemmons’ homosexuality decades before it became legal? Who was helping children reconcile assassination and self-acceptance (through Daniel Tiger)?
And what lessons would children not have been able to learn, what value of themselves would they not have gained, what garbage would have otherwise poured into their brains if not for him?
Neville’s film powerfully reminds audiences of that. To the point, perhaps, of a few emotional reactions. It’s hard to help it when you realize that Rogers adjusted the song “It’s You I Like” in 1981 for the wheelchair-limited Jeff Erlanger.
I’ve never been prouder that my toddlers are consumers of the extension of this show in “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” That they have stuffed animals of characters from the show. And that I sing “It’s Such a Good Feeling” to them for routine tender moments. (I now have more to tell them when they are old enough for me to explain why I know the song from “Daniel Tiger.”)
Director Morgan Neville carried the powerful story with near-perfect pacing – he needs more gigs.
Photo credit: KUER