Won’t You Be My Neighbor: An Unassuming Breath of Fresh Air

I can’t remember the last time I was 143 pounds. Sixth grade, probably. And I was a fatty. Also angry, and confused and wandering wide-eyed into my teenage years like I was the first to walk this stretch of unknown land marked by questionable style choices, a cracked voice, and a face full pimples. Growing up, you arm yourself for this right of passage, this ascent into yourself, and there are those to help you along the way: your parents, your friends, your teachers and coaches, the books you read and the shows you watch. For many, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was the curriculum, the sword and shield you carried to combat a world constantly trying to change you, to make something other than yourself. Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Morgan Nevilles’ documentary about Fred Rogers and the unlikely success of his show, spells out his philosophy, and shapes the ideas of the man that gave meaning to childhood.

There’s a lot to take from the documentary, things that are, it seems, more important today than maybe I initially realized. There’s a tremendous amount of irony in the fact that Pam Bondi, Florida’s Attorney General, was shouted down by a pack of angry protesters after a screening of the film. In a country where the relationship between political poles appears to be reaching a tipping point, when our nation’s representatives are constantly at each other’s throats, grandstanding for ravenous tribes of followers chomping at the bit for their very own thirty seconds in viral infamy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor might benefit from an most opportunistic release in a time where its message is very much needed.

A personality like his raises questions of authenticity, and, unless you live under a rock, I’m sure you’ve been subject to a number of rumors regarding the type of person Mr. Rogers was, where he came from: ways in which we grapple with the unbending humanity of character we witness on the screen. What we get in Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a sort of reassurance, that Mr. Rogers was, as far as anyone can tell, exactly the person he presented himself to be. He says that he “always felt that he didn’t need to put on a funny hat or jump through the hoop to have a relationship with a child.” This is reinforced by the simplicity of his sets, low production value, the patient pace; the focus instead on sincerity and the almost singular relationship he developed with his audience. This is, of course, invaluable when you’re tackling tragedies like divorce, racism, and death. This execution strays from the idea of entertainment that’s rife in Hollywood, where production value and a superficiality of everything from cast to content controls the commercial success of a show or a movie.

We are, in the end, encouraged to examine the quality of the content we ingest, and the way in which it impacts our lives and lives of those we love the most, our children. Fred Rogers’ assertion was that “love was at the root of everything—all learning, all relationships: love or the lack of it.” This singular approach to life, a life that revolves around the presence or absence of love, when applied to content we watch, read, and maybe someday create, has the potential to supplement a sense of direction that we can easily identify and utilize from the screen or the page in our own lives. This is the power of art, its ability to spin something complicated into something that speaks to us.

What the number 143 meant to Fred Rogers was, “I love you:” one letter for “I,” four for “love,” and three for “you.” From this he extracted a daily sense of satisfaction from his bodyweight, a reminder of his purpose, to “help children through the modulations of life,” by teaching them kindness, to express and control their emotions, and acceptance (of others and of themselves). Facing the trials of a seemingly, increasingly daunting world, Mr. Rogers helped the children of his time to become braver, to understand and interpret and apply their own intrinsic value. This is an unabashed act of love, the strength of the bond he made with so many millions of kids who tuned in to watch his show. Sitting nearly a hundred pounds over that number, I’m more than an instance of catastrophic starvation from ever reading 143 on a scale again. I will likely never be the benefactor of that daily reminder, lest I tattoo it on my forehead. Lucky for me, the message in Won’t You Be My Neighbor acts as a sufficient reminder for the reach and power of love, kindness, openness, and trust: attributes that can seem impossible to express, especially when the alternatives can be so effortless, but are nonetheless the tack that keep humanity from cascading into something that might make one feel justified in shouting someone down at a restaurant or outside of a movie theatre. Go watch it.

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