Summer movies … with a simple docu at the center.
It’s been a summer of documentaries, including films about supreme court justices (“RGB”), pop stars (“Whitney”), and more. In the middle of those has been one that has caught more attention than I think folks anticipated: "Won't You Be My Neighbor.” It’s about longtime children’s programming host, Presbyterian pastor, public theologian, and social critic, Fred Rogers, of the “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” fame—so many years on public television. Fred Rogers died in 2003.
I was just barely too old for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood when it came on the air in 1968, so I didn’t grow up with him. He was in the air, though. When I did watch bits, I was kinda put off by what (as a tween) I thought was a crude production, old puppets, a quiet and gentle soul at the helm, a ‘fantasy land’ that seems artificial and unsophisticated. I later learned that all of that was precisely the point—against pressure to go a different direction. I’ve come to respect Rev. Rogers for his, in fact, extraordinary sophistication and depth.
There was an odd paradox in his approach. On one hand, he was dogged in protecting children from unhealthy images: displays of pies in faces, costumed people jumping up and down and making silly voices to get kids’ attention, slapstick violence, and constant noise. He preferred the protective message of care, respect, love, and acceptance. Some critics blamed Fred Rogers for ushering in the “participation trophy” culture where children are taught that they don’t need to earn anything—that they’re ok just as they are. That, of course, was a rather shallow interpretation of what Mr. Rogers was doing, but it seemed to suggest that Fred’s theology was too protective, too soft, too unrealistic for the real world into which children grow.
And yet . . ., alongside this ethic of protection, Fred Rogers was uniquely bold in addressing the social issues of the day in his work. The last thing he did was protect children from the worries of the real world. In the very first week of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” in 1968, Fred addressed war, wall-building, and fear of change. Yes, he did. He addressed race, with an African-American a regular character in his “neighborhood.” They mingled their feet in a small pool, on a week when the news showed black children being kicked out of segregated public pools. When the time came, he artfully projected acceptance of the homosexuality of the African-American actor who played one of his ‘neighbors’ for so long. He addressed disability, violence, poverty, and work. He went headlong into fear on the heels of Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
As an old friend of mine, who worked in Public Television for many years, told me once, Fred Rogers set out to develop critical awareness in young children, and the capacity to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
And there’s the delightful irony that I think we can learn from—perhaps now more than ever. Being direct, unsophisticated, protective, and accepting allowed him to create relationships (even through the television), which then allowed him to create trust, which then allowed him to speak respectfully and directly to children about real life things. It was this very protectiveness and (seeming) naiveté that allowed him to do the opposite: expose children to real life and real choices, to pain as well as play, to grief as well as hope, to honesty about feelings without exaggeration: in short, to love.
Ought we not try to do the same?