Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Fred Rogers. Directed by Morgan Neville.
Four personal memories of Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, my favorite TV show for most of my early childhood.
Mr. Rogers shows a short film on his in-studio framed painting, whose name is Picture Picture. Mr. Rogers challenges us to guess what’s being produced in this film. We see machines leading yarn around and around through a maze of mechanical arms, spools, and belts. Something’s taking shape but it’s impossible to tell what it is. Suddenly the process is complete, and we’ve witnessed the automated production of socks.
Mr. Rogers has a leaky wooden bucket. He takes us to the house of a neighbor who’s a woodworker. She repairs the bucket. I’m not sure, but I think she does it without glue or any kind of adhesive. Before Mr. Rogers leaves, he thanks his friend and says, “This is water-tight, right?” And the neighor says, “This should be water-tight.” Mr. Rogers takes the bucket back to his place and puts water in the bucket. It’s water-tight, and I’ve learned a new phrase at five years old.
I have some kind of boo-boo, something bad enough to make me cry. My family is living on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. My dad is at work; I don’t know where my sister is. My mom puts a Band-Aid on it, or kisses it, or does some kind of mom magic that makes me feel better. Then she gives me a Granny Goose Goos-Bar (it was our family’s preferred brand; I don’t remember having Otter Pops until I was almost out of elementary school, at some kind of school function) and puts me in front of the TV to watch Mr. Rogers.
The kids in first and second grade liked Sesame Street. I liked Mr. Rogers. Still. None of the guys liked Mr. Rogers at all. Some of them said Mr. Rogers was gay. None of this was enough to make me change my mind. All of this is part of my first memory of being alienated from the other guys by liking something different, a state that never really went away.
Sesame Street was entertaining as heck, and I loved it. But Mr. Rogers stoked my curiosity and taught me how to ask meaningful questions, fueling a love for learning that has never left me and always made me an outsider, even at my college-prep private high school.
It’s a bit more trendy now to remember Mr. Rogers with fondness, and I want to feel good about it, but mostly I feel slightly resentful. I knew Mr. Rogers was awesome when I was three. Where were all these fans at seven and eight? I don’t need them now; I needed them then.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary by Morgan Neville (who directed the terrific 20 Feet from Stardom) is helping me get over it. I need a movie about kindness at this time when kindness in the media seems scarce, perhaps more than I needed common ground with my guy friends in the mid-1970s. I can’t pretend I’m over anything yet, but I can be reminded that kindness is a mission, that kindness is the high road, and that one of my childhood heroes looked a cynical congressman right in the eye, returned spite with kindness, and saved PBS.
For about as long as I can remember, I’ve admired rebels. See this movie and understand why.