WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (released in 2018) is a documentary about the power of unconditional love. The vehicle of this precious attribute was the multi-talented Fred Rogers. I am so grateful I got to watch Mr. Rogers on public television through much of my childhood, but especially from ages three/four to five-and-a-half. I realized while watching this movie last night that his loving presence combined with that of my maternal grandmother are what kept me going with a sense of hope and feeling loved through hard times, namely my parents divorcing and the fall-out of that over a period of years.
There is some exposition about Fred Rogers’s upbringing and background, which was wealthy and privileged but lonely. A heavy-set, soft-spoken, and often sickly child, he was bullied yet left alone with his grief. While often sick in bed with an ailment, such as scarlet fever, Fred’s imagination made his bed covers a landscape of characters, his legs mountains or hills. Some simple but lovely animation created expressly for the movie fills in this part of the narrative.
He also addressed these challenging concerns as himself in his studio “home.” The episode of Mr. Rogers cooling his feet off in a plastic wading pool along with Officer Clemmons, an African American policeman (played by singer and actor Francois Clemmons), still moves me to this day. At the time of filming this scene in early 1969, black people were continuing to be discriminated against for using swimming pools shared by whites. The actual Francois looks into the camera and tearfully explains how Fred was a surrogate father for him, his own dad and stepfather being unavailable/unconnected while he was growing up. Like me, Francois Clemmons is an out gay man, which Fred knew about and accepted. My child intuition was affirmed; he truly did like me just the way I am.
I am heartened that this documentary was made and that a dramatization (A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD) about Fred Rogers has soon followed. His legacy is invaluable, a tenderly expressed candor, understanding of, and caring for children and overall humanity that rises to the level of evolvedness many would equate with sainthood or that of a bodhisattva. His ever-gentle voice– spoken and in song– and frequent piano playing relayed love rarely heard and felt so deeply and broadly from one person. I know because I myself directly benefitted from them.
Since Fred Rogers’s death in 2003, I am not aware of a person who has stepped into his shoes on television or online, someone to mitigate for children, especially, the onslaught of over-stimulating imagery and cacophony of words in the media. He was a grounding, soothing voice of calm and inherent goodness that the world continues to so badly need. At least there are ongoing moving images of Mister Rogers to watch, listen to, and pass on to today’s children. And therein lies some comfort.