Talking to children can be difficult. Their minds and mouths race at a mile a minute as they try and process the world that they’re still so new to. They have more questions than you could possibly know the answers to and it can be frustrating for adults to try and keep up.
Here’s the thing, though: kids need answers. Especially when the questions are tough. Childhood experiences are so important to whom we grow up to be and we owe it to the young people of today to make those experiences count.
Fred Rogers (‘Mister’ Rogers to the millions of kids who grew up with him on their TVs) picked up that slack when no one else would. For nearly 30 years, he provided the kind of programming he felt children needed and deserved, but weren’t being given. Won’t You Be My Neighbour?, a new documentary by Morgan Neville, captures Rogers’ patience and drive with moving brilliance.
From the opening moments of the film, you know exactly who Rogers is. Archive footage from his own home in 1967 shows him sitting at a piano, talking about guiding children through difficult passages in life. Immediately following this is a montage of Rogers doing just that, on the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, talking to any and all of the children that would nervously approach him. Throughout the film, his patience stands out the most. In a fast—paced world where children’s cartoons delivered nothing but pies in faces and exploding robots, Fred Rogers spent time with his audience. As one of the movies’ talking heads puts it, there were plenty of slow moments on the show, but never a moment wasted.
Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood was a safe space for children, but as the film makes clear, it wasn’t always an easy space. The idea that the neighbourhood was a perpetually happy space where nothing went wrong is an utter fallacy; episodes dealt with divorce, assassination, death, war and any number of social issues. The goal wasn’t to paint a smiley face over everything; it was to be there for the kids when that didn’t work.
Following in the show’s footsteps, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? tackles some of the more difficult aspects of Rogers’ life. One of the most surprising parts of the movie is the beautiful animations that depict Rogers’ difficult, mostly bedridden childhood, as well as the self-doubt that seeped in when the world’s darkness he was tackling got a little too much to bear. It’s heartbreaking to hear that, when asked to do some promotional material in the wake of 9/11, Rogers said to his producers “I’m just not sure what difference this is going to make.”
I do wish, however, that the film was a little more probing on the more difficult subject matter. There are some interesting tidbits in here and they should be more than just tidbits. A lot of time is dedicated to Mister Rogers’ friendship with Francois Clemmons, an African American man whose appearances on the show during the height of the Civil Rights movement were some of the most quietly powerful moments of the show. Clemmons speaks lovingly of his so-called “surrogate father.” However, he also briefly mentions that Rogers was reluctant to allow Clemmons to be openly gay, worrying about funding being pulled, or detracting from viewership. I don’t think Rogers was homophobic; Clemmons makes it very clear that he received unending love and support. But the film hurts itself by treating this as a blip; a little more discussion about this would have made it an interesting segment as opposed to a somewhat awkward moment.
Likewise, a little more exploration of Rogers’ beliefs would have been a nice addition. There’s a lot of discussion about why he didn’t like the children’s cartoons of his day, but there’s something a little odd about the way it comes across. There’s a vague undertone of self-righteousness to it, as though there’s only one way to treat a child. I think it would have been interesting to probe that a little further.
But maybe these things should be left as footnotes. When you see Clemmons breaking down into tears over the love that Rogers gave him, it’s clear that what Rogers did for him outweighed the sacrifices he had to make. When you see everyone from Jeff Erlanger (the wheelchair-bound little boy who appeared on one of the most memorable episodes of Neighbourhood) to world-famous cellist Yo Yo Ma talk about what an incredible experience it was to be near the man, it’s clear that the love which radiated from the show was what stuck with people. This film captures that perfectly; in the end, the good Rogers did clearly outweigh the bad.
Towards the end of the film, director Morgan Neville dedicates some time to those who would critique the show; first, the parodies, but also those that felt Rogers’ message led to a generation of over-entitled children. When I saw this movie, I didn’t see a generation that felt over-entitled. I saw a generation that felt validated, listened to for the very first time. I saw it in the people the film interviewed and I saw it in the tears of the people I saw the film with. For all my little misgivings, I can’t deny how moving the film is and how important Fred Rogers was to so many people.
This film is one of many being shown by the Film House, a part of the FirstOntario performing Arts Centre. The Film House follows suit with the rest of the centre, hosting projects from talents both local and international that you wouldn’t get the chance to see anywhere else. The Centre even has a connection to Brock; the Film House hosts the Brock University Film Society’s weekly film screening for students, and the Centre as a whole hosts projects put on by the Marilyn I. Walker School of Performing Arts. Alongside a slew of other programming, Won’t You Be My Neighbour?’s final screening will be on October 12.