We went to the Fred Rogers bio-documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor last night, and it exceeded my expectations in every way.
We saw it at the amazing Byrd Theater, a silent era movie palace that hasn't changed a whole lot since it was originally opened in the 1920s. That was our first time at the Byrd, and we'll definitely be back.
I'll admit up front that I am exactly the right age to have been indelibly impacted by Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. However, I barely remember the show. I know it was on in the mornings when I was 4 years old, but I passed it over for Sesame Street every time. Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, as I learned last night, was a much deeper show than appears on the surface. I guess I preferred more frenetic pace of Sesame Street, plus I think I also liked the immediate feedback from Sesame Street. I learned a letter, number, word, whatever on every show. The lessons kids were getting from Mr Rogers were more subtle and in a lot of ways more important.
Make-believe land wasn't just a cute plot point in the show, it was teaching kids to distinguish between make believe and the real world, which was represented by Mr. Rogers' house. The show debuted during peak Vietnam in the late 60s, and he tackled that subject in the first week. The black police officer Officer Clemmons wasn't a coincidence. Inviting Officer Clemmons to join him in soaking his feet in the kiddie pool just happened to be a thing he did during a time when black people using the same pool as white people was controversial in some places. It wasn't just a cute and safe kids show, it was a very seriously thought out child development exercise in teaching compassion, fairness, justice, and respect for all individuals.
Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Looking back, you can see how his faith permeated every aspect of how he lived his on-screen persona, yet he did it without ever sounding preachy or condescending. By all accounts TV Mr. Rogers wasn't much different than real life Fred Rogers. Christians today, or at least the tens of millions supporting Donald Trump could learn a lot about their faith from Fred. We could all learn a lot from Mr. Rogers.
Ironically, Fred hated television. The show was an attempt to provide an antidote to the product marketing based advertising that dominated kids TV back then. If you are thinking it's worse today you are not alone. During the screening last night my mind wandered for a moment as I started thinking about how Fred would react to social media.
I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be a fan. Maybe we should all take that hint.
Also, apparently Tom Hanks is currently filming a movie biopic of Fred Rogers. Good luck with that. I can't see how it's going to better than this.