Fred Rogers is the hero we need in our neighborhood

In 1968, a children’s television show launched on public television. With basic props and a simple set, weirdly enough, it succeeded.

Why? Because of its unlikely star and namesake, Mr. Fred Rogers.


Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 94 min.
Stars: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, François Clemons

In my life, Mr. Rogers provided guidance and positive examples: To be a good person; to love others for who they are, and to try and make a difference in someone’s world, even if it’s just for one second.

Though I can’t recall individual episodes, I can identify the impact he has made on me. It’s almost a subconscious impression, etched in me to do good.

Directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, The Music of Strangers), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a documentary starring Joanne Rogers, François Clemmons, David Newell, Joe Negri, Yo-Yo Ma and Fred Rogers, in archival footage.

Today’s age of animosity between different kinds of people calls out for a mediator, or, at least, enough  emotional tolerance to not throw back hatred, but instead be kind.

This was the message Fred Rogers tried to teach in Mr. Rogers’ NeighborhoodWon’t You Be My Neighbor? reveals the base from which the show was built, and how Mr. Rogers became an television icon in television and unifying force for love and compassion.

CORRECTION The original version of this story assigned the incorrect star rating to this review. SFBay regrets the error.

It’s rare nowadays to see people working in kids’ television who are the same as they are on TV. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? delivers audiences the reassurance that the person you looked up to as a kid was indeed that person in real life.

Revisiting Mr. Rogers should be a wake-up call. Our world demands people be honest and kind to one another. It’s astonishing how we can lose touch with childhood innocence. We aren’t all perfect. Mr. Rogers teaches us this. But even though we aren’t perfect, we can learn; we can be better.

As an adult now looking back at Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the values he teaches are hugely important for children. I wasn’t aware that learning about divorce, assassinations or racism had been largely off-limits for kids to learn about on TV.

Even in sweater and tie, Rogers was punk-rock. He defied the norm, and believed that children needed to learn about real world situations. Neville made sure his documentary didn’t scrape over those moments.

I appreciate Mr. Rogers even more after absorbing that he thought children were just as much adult as adult are children. We all get sad, happy and, especially, mad.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. I heard sniffles and saw people wipe their eyes throughout the movie. This came from children, adults and even the elderly. It’s moving to know Mr. Rogers made a difference in the lives of so many kids, including the disabled and people of different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and sexual orientations.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? cemented my love for Mr. Rogers when Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show, talked about difficult it was for him being both black and gay. Having Clemmons publicly come out on air in the late 1960s could have cost Rogers sponsors, supporters, and possibly the show itself.

Mr. Rogers warmed up to the idea. He was one of the first people in Clemmons’ life who told him that it was okay for him to be who he was. Clemmons, crying with tears of joy, called Mr. Rogers his surrogate father, since his own biological father didn’t accept Clemmons for who he was.

In these divisive times, even a sprinkle of Mr. Rogers’ philosophy within all of our minds would vastly improve how we treat each other.

Watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will make you want to call or talk to a loved one, or a person who has shown empathy in one way or another.

Right now, I want to take a note from Mr. Rogers and ask you, the reader, to:

“… just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are … Ten seconds of silence.”

Who did you think of?