There will be a moment for each of you — well, most of you, with any semblance of a heart anyways — when your emotional defenses so bravely holding back that lump in your throat give way. The flood gates will open and you might be embarrassed for a moment, until you realize everyone else in the theatre watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is all snuffles and tears too. For me, the moment came when seeing Mister Rogers in Koko the gorilla’s embrace, hugging and doting over him like a young child. This moment is happening because Koko was actually a fan of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; she watched his show on TV; she knew him; knew what he looked like; and knew he would always take off his shoes and put on sneakers – and so she does it for him. This moment was of course heightened by the deeply saddening news that Koko recently passed away at the age of 46 on June 18 of this year. The moment between them is overwhelming.
This distinct type of melancholy lingers throughout Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which is oddly at tension with the dogged hopefulness and joy of its subject, Fred Rogers. It’s hard not to feel like we, collectively as a society, haven’t met Mister Rogers’ expectations. I’m not sure we ever could, but he gave us all, child and adult alike, a sense that it was possible.
Morgan Neville’s documentary shines a critical light on Fred Rogers’ TV persona, revealing an almost unbelievable level of curiosity, benevolence and respect for humanity from the man. On several occasions, though, we’re presented with interviews and political commentary on Rogers critically questioning his motives, impact and true persona. Honestly, I’ve wondered myself if the Mister and the Fred are one in the same. Showcasing interviews with family, friends and crew members, and a plethora of delightful behind-the-scenes footage dispels any remaining question of their similitude. Numerous interviewees confirm that any doubtfulness by critics of Rogers stems from his utterly singular disposition and mission. There was no one else like him (but I truly hope there are others). After completing 856 episodes over thirty-one years, if ever there were any cracks to be found between Mister Rogers and Fred Rogers I imagine we would have found them.
If you are one to believe that Rogers’ show was merely a strategy for keeping children busy or entertained, Neville will quickly disabuse you of that notion. Fred Rogers, we learn, was intimately consulting with experts in the field of child development and always striving to assert the dire importance of his message in the face of an exponentially growing tide of what he saw as violent and demeaning children’s programming. His strategy is described by interviewees as “radical,” which, at first, might seem to be at odds with his conservative attire and the program’s subdued tone. We come to find out that he was nothing if not radical, and if we didn’t notice it at first it’s because it was a form of radicalness based on empathy and goodwill. As evidence, we learn that the Neighborhood‘s first week of programming in 1968 drew strong parallels with the Vietnam War. Rogers also did a week on death and tackled divorce, and after Robert F. Kennedy died in 1968 he helped explain what assassination meant to a nation of children already hearing the word blaring from the news and whispered in the home. If that isn’t radical I don’t know what is.
Some of the most affecting segments in the film are on racial tensions in the U.S. during the height of desegregation. We’re shown horrifying footage of a white motel manager dumping acid into a pool in 1964 trying to force out African-American swimmers protesting segregation; we cut to Mister Rogers with Officer Clemmons, played by François Clemmons, in the Neighborhood cooling their feet together in a kiddie pool. Again, radical. Clemmons was one of the first African-Americans with a recurring role on a children’s program.
Neville doesn’t shy away from the more unsavory details surrounding the series either. He questions Clemmons about his instructions from Rogers to conceal his identity as a gay man. The forced concealment by Rogers, as Clemmons notes, was not homophobic, but out of necessity for the show’s continued sponsorship and survival. Despite these instructions Clemmons tenderly describes Rogers as his surrogate father and the love between them is clearly evident. These insights, alongside hints that Rogers’ own childhood was marked with prolonged sicknesses and bullying because of his weight, help color the film a slight shade of gray, overcoming the suspicion that the film is merely a vehicle for the pure glorification of Fred Rogers. It was not all smiles and happiness on or off screen in the Neighborhood, because that’s not the reality of life. Alongside hope, joy and love there is pain, grief and loneliness. The power behind this documentary and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood lies in earnestly confronting the realities of this world – ethical, political, racial, or otherwise, while constantly reinforcing the inherent worth in all of us and the importance of reminding those around us of it.
Now, you’ve probably been wondering patiently about the title to this article, so let me explain. Nearly every day of his life Fred Rogers woke up early and went swimming, and every day after he swam he would weigh himself. For basically all of his adult life Fred weighed 143 lbs and took strict measures not to alter that number. 143 meant so much to him because, and you might remember this from the series, there’s one letter in “I,” four letters in “love,” and three letters in “you.” 143 is “I love you.” He was the living embodiment, down to the exact pound, of love. As Rogers once said, “Love is at the root of everything… love or the lack of it.” Thus, I’d like to propose that the number 143 be forever enshrined as a universal constant for the power of love and the memory of Mister Rogers. I’d like to leave you with part of one of Mister Rogers’ most endearing songs, “It’s You I Like,” to take with you for the rest of the day and share with someone you care deeply about or, perhaps, a total stranger.
“But it’s you I like
Every part of you
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like
It’s you yourself
It’s you I like.”
Check out Tom Junod’s original 1998 Esquire article chronicling Fred Rogers, the inspiration for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but also because Tom’s relationship with Fred is the focus of an upcoming film, You Are My Friend, by Marielle Heller slated for release in 2019, starring who other than Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers.
To engage with other powerful and interesting documentaries, check out the Visible Evidence XXV series at the IU Cinema, which begins on Tuesday, August 7 with a screening of Austerlitz. The Visible Evidence conference runs from August 8-11, and comprises a host of screenings, panels, workshops and special events exploring documentary film and media.
Caleb Allison usually prefers his films slow, cryptic or menacing and doesn’t always understand why. A Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Caleb researches home-video cultures, film history, and production and distribution industries. He is an unrestrained collector of the Criterion Collection, a fan of Super 8 filmmaking, and a Tarkovsky nut.