I was never a fan of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” (though now more than ever I appreciate the proper use of the possessive apostrophe), a sleepy little TV show that seemed impossibly gentle for its time (from 1968 till August 31, 2001). But over the years, I began to respect Fred Rogers as a genuine man because you only ever heard one thing about him: That he was exactly who he seemed to be on the show.
That, and he was a crack sniper in ‘nam. (He wasn’t.)
But beyond celebrity gossip (Johnny Carson used to marvel how genuine Mr. Rogers was) which is, of course, subject to PR agencies and just run-of-the-mill slander and hagiography, you would also hear over the years from individuals who had run into him with the common theme of: He stopped everything he was doing (including trying to catch a plane) to talk to someone in need. In other words, beyond cultivating a persona of “grownup you can trust and confide in”, he actually lived that life.
There aren’t nearly enough of those stories in this otherwise fine documentary, which traces his beginnings as a minister and his concern over television as a babysitter. I’m phrasing things a lot more harshly than he did: He never says “TV is a babysitter and you all should be ashamed of yourself”. He simply observed that children were being exposed to a lot of television, and that television was very unfriendly toward them.
He never says, “The news media promotes chaos and fear because that’s what gives it power.” No, he talks about words children surely heard a lot of, like “assassination” in one of the earliest shows of 1968, and then he repeats his message about the goodness in people, and the trustworthiness.
I found myself objecting to the reality that Mr. Rogers lived in: One where children were set in front of a TV and had to be shown a safe, fake neighborhood with simple rules, basic manners, and small-C christian values; A world where public monies had to be spent to create even that fake neighborhood—and Mr. Rogers, per this documentary, was pivotal to PBS continuing at a time when the Nixon administration might have killed it; A world where his attempts to translate his success with children to success with adults was amazingly unsuccessful; In the end, a world where he was brought out of his retirement to try to address 9/11—something not suited to his overall message.
But I can’t object to how he navigated that world: With sincere and at least locally successfully attempts to make it better.
Beyond the stage persona, the documentary shows us the charming behind-the-scenes aspects of his personality. There’s humor (not all of it appropriate for children) and struggle, and a little undercurrent of darkness—though thankfully nothing of the squalor which is de rigueur in these sorts of docs. The closest to anything of that sort is a little vignette of Francois (Officer) Clemmons.
Officer Clemmons is central to the movie’s premise of Mr. Rogers’ significance: In 1968, Mr. Rogers coaxed Clemmons into playing a police officer. In 1968, police officers were not considered too groovy in the black community…which is doubtless why Rogers wanted him to play that role. In 1969, on a hot day in the neighborhood, he invites Clemmons to splash his feet in a kiddie pool with him. These were pretty edgy things for a kid show.
A fabulous singer, Francois Clemmons is also a homosexual, which Mr. Rogers found out about due to certain indiscretions. Obviously, Mr. Rogers couldn’t have an “out” homosexual on the show, so Clemmons stayed in the closet and even had a sham marriage. I couldn’t quite piece this part together, since Clemmons has apparently been “out” since his divorce 1974, and was on the show until 1983 and then re-appeared in 1993.
I consider three main points when rating documentaries: (1) Is the subject matter worthy or interesting; (2) Was the presentation worthy of the material; (3) What’s the slant? So, on that scale:
- Subject matter: Mr. Rogers is a cultural icon to a lot of people. Despite having been in the target audience, I never made it 5 minutes into one of his shows, yet I knew quite a bit about him and the tropes of The Neighborhood. But beyond that, Rogers would’ve been interesting (though much different) if he had been a late night horror host.
- Presentation: Fairly minimal. This isn’t a big, stylized production. That’s fine for this topic.
- Slant: The movie begins with the irascible King Friday trying to build a big wall to keep all the strangers and modernity out. At the end of the movie, they have a clip of Brian Kilmeade on “The Five” talking about how Mr. Rogers is the problem with society (because he told everyone they were special)! The wall bit is kind of funny. The Fox bit is gross, because in the movie chronology, Mr. Rogers had just died and the Kilmeade quote had to be well over 10 years later.
Kilmeade is wrong, of course: When Mr. Rogers said “you are special”, he meant to him and (probably, though the movie doesn’t say this) to God. The overriding message of the show is service (you to others and others to you), and the relatively mild slant isn’t enough to drag that into mere politics. Still, I would’ve preferred less of this stuff and Clemmons and more of things like Jeff Erlanger, a five-year-old who asked to meet Mr. Rogers before undergoing spinal surgery, and who ended up being on the show a few years later.
Still, I liked it despite not being a fan of the show, kiddie shows, public television or TV generally. My companions ranged from maybe-saw-a-show-once to born-after-Rogers-died, but they also found it worthy.