I didn’t grow up in the United States, so I had never heard of Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood until I saw Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, now available on HBO. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran on PBS from 1968 to 2001, may not be new, but it is exactly what we need these days. The show was visually so simple, and Mr. Rogers such a patient and calm figure, that it is easy to miss how bold he was. However, it soon became clear to me why people interviewed for the documentary describe him as an “unlikely star” and a “radical.”
The stories told by Mrs. Rogers in and outside the Neighborhood of Make-Believe are as relevant today as they were when first created. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a kids show that made a point of talking about themes such as death, racial segregation, and even the assassination of Senator Bobby Kennedy. I was surprised to see King Friday XIII, the ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe described as “one of the few remaining benevolent despots,” ordering the construction of a wall because his world was changing too much and he wanted to keep “the changers” away.
Specific themes and dialogues, however, are not the most radical part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ boldness manifests itself mainly in the show’s inclusiveness and openness. The documentary seems to attribute that, at least in part, to the fact that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. But other than religious, the show’s scenes included in the movie feel secular and extremely human.
Maybe the best explanation for that is who Fred Rogers was before becoming Mr. Rogers - a sensitive and shy boy whom the documentary represents in original animations of Daniel, the sweet tiger who lived in a clock in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, and whom his widow Joanne Rogers believes had more of the real Fred Rogers than any other characters he created.
The director Morgan Neville is clearly a fan, and the documentary is a tribute to Fred Rogers, but it doesn’t shy away from showing the controversies caused by the show, and the opinions of those who described Mr. Rogers as evil and showed up to protest during his funeral. Well, maybe these reactions only prove my point that Fred Rogers (at least the one that was introduced to me in this documentary) was extremely human, and it was his humanity what touched so many people - and what makes him and his radical ideas continue to be a relevant 16 years after his death.
- Lalu Farias