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‘Mister Rogers’ documentary relevant for troubled times

CHICAGO – Three years ago, I inadvertently landed on a YouTube episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and my heart stopped when I heard the bells introducing the theme music. When Rogers started singing his signature greeting, I burst into tears.

Last week, at a screening of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – the new documentary of Fred Rogers directed by Morgan Neville – I lasted little more than a few minutes. During the opening sequence, the iconic red neighborhood trolley is lovingly lifted out of a wooden case and gently placed on its track. I wept.

Such it is with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – you wouldn’t show up if you didn’t have strong, happy memories of spending countless hours with the gentle, cardigan-draped Pied Piper of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe; you won’t make it through the film without feeling your heart ache.

When you look at the format and mechanics of this documentary, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. We learn about young TV performer Fred Rogers, who, by a twist of fate in the form of a broken film reel, ends up improvising a time-telling segment with his trusty sock-puppet Daniel Tiger. From there he gets a grant and grows the children’s show into must-see TV many of us remember from childhood.

His fans already know what a profound impact Rogers had on us individually.

But the magic of Neville’s lushly filmed movie is in discovering that Rogers made every viewer feel special, strong – even heroic. He made them feel he was speaking directly to them when he declared “the truth is inside of us, and it’s wonderful when we have the courage to tell it.”

As, at least partly, a hagiography, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” features interviews with Rogers’ wife, sons and co-workers – those he spent the most time with – and they admit, that yes, he was the same in real life as he portrayed himself on-camera. One son shared it was “a little tough for me to have the second Christ as a dad.”

The strength of this film, however, is in highlighting little-known aspects of the show that would never have occurred to the kids who were watching it.

Several people in the film hailed Fred Rogers as a radical for respecting children’s inherent dignity, for looking to research in the social sciences to guide his segments, for being so bold in his conversations with kids and so diverse. It is stunning to see archival footage of black, Asian and Latino children naturally working and playing together long before advocacy groups had to lobby to be included on TV.

We learn that in Rogers’ mind, the neighborhood was make-believe, but not exactly a fantasy place – it was filled with real personalities that, when put together, sometimes experienced genuine conflict.

A scene from Episode 2, filmed in 1968, is chilling in our modern-day context. A blaring newspaper headline says King Friday the XIII – the Neighborhood of Make-Believe’s benevolent dictator – has established a border guard. In subsequent episodes, characters are sad as they’ve been conscripted to defend the kingdom’s perimeter because the king is anti-change.

The film explains this was a direct reference to events in the Vietnam War and was designed to help children process their parents’ anxieties and their own fears.

At one point, a character laments King Friday doesn’t want anything to change because “we’re on top.” By the end of the week, peaceful co-existence was the order of the land again, after subjects lobbied the king to stop all the fighting. …

The heart of this gentle man’s story, however, is the impact Rogers had. Go see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” to understand the immensity of his influence.

As a child of recent immigrants who spoke only Spanish at home, I spent long stretches of time alone as my family struggled to clothe and house and feed us. Fred Rogers meant so much more to me than just being a nice guy with puppets on TV.

Near the film’s end, we see a young woman meeting Rogers and crumpling into tears. “I wasn’t allowed to go to preschool … so my mom made me watch you,” she told him. “Thank you for giving me a preschool education.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.