Film Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
by S.M. Chen | 22 June 2018 |
“Kindness to children, love for children, goodness to children – these are the only investments that never fail.”
—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) – American writer, naturalist
Not many films garner a 99% ranking at Rotten Tomatoes, a film website (but one of many).
Here’s one that did. Justifiably so, in my opinion.
A documentary, it runs just a little over 1.5 hours.
From 1968 to 2001 there aired a charming children’s TV program called “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It featured Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, graduate of Pittsburg Theological Seminary, who also wrote script and played much of his own music on a slow (but without wasted moments) program which featured gentle characters and puppets.
My children watched the syndicated show from time to time and my grandson is acquainted with the theme song (also title of the film), composed and played by Rogers.
While trained to be a man of the cloth, Rogers felt his ministry lay not in taking a more conventional path, but rather in bringing a message of kindness to TV audiences, specifically children. His many awards, including a Peabody and Presidential Medal of Freedom, support the correctness of his decision. One of his red knit cardigans (sweaters were a trademark of his show) is preserved in the Smithsonian.
He actually disliked much of TV and the message its fare conveyed. He was determined to try a different approach.
He got his start at WQED, an educational TV station in Pittsburg. He advocated acceptance and tolerance – and love. Seemed to wear his Christianity on his sleeve, and his mantra was: “Love your neighbor, love yourself.” He considered the space between TV and viewer to be holy ground, and labored hard to make it so, to make his show worthwhile for viewers, of whom he was ever mindful.
In 1969, with Richard Nixon as POTUS, funding for PBS was at risk. Rogers appeared before the Senate subcommittee on Communications and Senator John Pastore as chairman, and, in an impassioned but gentle speech, convinced Pastore to continue funding. $20 million may not seem much today, but it was serious money at that time, and Rogers practically singlehandedly secured it.
He did not shrink from sobering issues that are a necessary part of life: death, divorce, grief. He often let puppets do the talking. In June 1968, after RFK was assassinated, on the show Daniel the Tiger had Lady Aberlin inflate and deflate a red balloon, symbolism for the rise and fall of a well-known politician whose career and life were cut short by a bullet.
As a child, Rogers was not allowed to show anger, and he was a pudgy youngster. Silence became his delight. He said, “Silence is one of the greatest gifts we have.”
He also did not avoid controversy. During a time of racial unrest (when have we had racial rest?), he befriended a black policeman (François Clemmons). A snippet from one episode of his drying the feet of Clemmons with his own towel after the two men shared water in a shallow wading pool reminded me of the Master washing and drying the feet of His disciples in the Upper Room.
And, of course, that Master was the one who defined neighbor by telling a parable – that of the Good Samaritan. I interpret the parable to mean that a neighbor is anyone who needs (or helps) us. It follows that, in asking “Won’t you be my neighbor?” we are saying, in effect, won’t you be someone who needs (or helps) me? But what is wrong with that? What were we put on earth for, if not to be helpful?
It reminds me of the bumper sticker: “What on earth are you doing for heaven’s sake?”
The policeman Clemmons later came out of the closet. Rogers asked him not to frequent a gay bar again, but did not unfriend him (this in the days before Facebook).
He accepted people (particularly children) the way they were, and considered nonacceptance/intolerance as one of life’s great evils. In his mind, everyone was unique and special. One did not have to be sensational to be lovable, and loved.
One interviewee opined there probably wasn’t room for people like him on TV anymore. A sad commentary, but quite possibly true.
One of Rogers’ sons, during the documentary film, comments that having him as a father was like experiencing divinity in the flesh. Some parallels are inescapable. On the rare occasion when Rogers had to deal with an unpleasant matter (he really was as he seemed on the show; his lack of dissembling was refreshing), his voice morphed into that of one of his puppets. His family could tell when a serious topic was going to be broached.
Sadly, Rogers succumbed to inoperable stomach cancer a month before his 75th birthday. Before the end, he asked his wife, Joanne, with whom he had 2 sons and who bore him obvious admiration and affection in her film interview: “Do you think I’m a sheep?”
(This an allusion to the sheep and goats which we are told will be at the right and left hand of the Almighty in the Judgment).
She replied, “If there ever were a sheep, Fred, you’re one.”
This must have been of some comfort.
One of the friendships he maintained over time was with eminent cellist Yo Yo Ma. The two shared a love of music (Rogers was an accomplished pianist) and though Ma says that their initial encounter was scary (for Ma), the younger man apparently got over it.
At Rogers’ funeral, attended by many, some protestors held signs saying; “God hates fags.”
One of Rogers’ friends went up to them (he said he had to; Fred would have) and asked, “What are you saying? Are you saying Fred was gay?” (He wasn’t).
“No,” came the answer. “But he tolerated gays.”
Turns out the protestors were intolerant of his tolerance.
This recalls a comment by Tom Lehrer, Harvard mathematician turned troubadour (some of his songs, sung by him as he simultaneously plays an upright piano, are wickedly funny and thought provoking): “I just hate people who don’t love their fellow man.”
One interviewee opined, “I think there are a lot of people out there like Fred Rogers.”
Unlike the Tishbite Elijah, who remonstrated with the Almighty that he alone supported the true God. God had to correct him by telling him there were 7000 others who had not bent a knee to Baal.
I have had the privilege of meeting such others – those (not necessarily Christian, but some, too) who place a premium on goodness, kindness, and gentleness, and who also believe that we should be careful of the little people.
For we were once them and they will grow up to be us.
S.M. Chen writes from California.