A trip back to the ‘Neighborhood’

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Coverage of bitterly divisive politics and unspeakable acts of cruelty can be overwhelming to even the most hardened media consumers. There are days the world just seems meaner, and if you put yourself in a digital vacuum, people seem to lack compassion for those who disagree with them.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to make such conclusions, but we all have trigger points that can be tested by current events. As a parent of young children, I am still horrified and shaken by every school shooting. As a member of the media, the attack on journalists at the Capital Gazette this summer conjured a whole new type of fear about things that seem beyond our reasonable control.

It might only be coincidence that Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker of “20 Feet from Stardom,” released his new film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” at a time when American culture seems to need it most. However it came to be, it’s the movie that just might remind enough of us of what really matters.

The film documents the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister, puppeteer, musician and iconic host of the preschool-targeted television series, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The show began in 1968 and continued off-and-on until 2001, acting as a calm, nurturing voice to generations of children.

I was one of those kids. I remember watching the public television series early and often, and I always found Mister Rogers to be a soothing voice to my often manic and anxious little mind. While I don’t have a specific memory of watching any individual episode, I do tend to melt into a wreck of emotion at the sight of one often-shared sequence. It’s the episode where the goldfish dies, and Mister Rogers calmly collects and buries the poor little guy in the front yard. Whenever I see this scene it feels like a specific thing that happened to me, and Mister Rogers was there to help me understand this inevitable part of life.

I’m pretty sure I never owned any goldfish growing up.

The voice of Mister Rogers just makes me feel better, even as an adult who doesn’t generally respond well to simplistic, heartstring-tugging messages of love and happiness. My parents, however, must have noticed this enduring adoration, because as a graduation gift for college they gave me a copy of his book, “The World According to Mister Rogers,” which I still own and refer to more than a decade later.

This experience is obviously a common one for those who saw the program at an impressionable age. You can generally tell if people watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as children because those who didn’t tend to have a more cynical opinion of the show and the man himself. They might be the ones to joke about his seemingly impossible goodness or those who believe Mister Rogers played an instrumental role in creating a generation of entitled, “everyone is special” whiners who can’t seem to accept failure.

For those who loved him, these charges can be difficult to combat in the moment. In the face of that brand of cynicism, it can be hard to explain a fondness for a show that was made to entertain four-year-olds.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” serves as a powerful counterargument to those dismissive of Mister Rogers’ legacy. It articulates the show’s value through images and words that don’t appear often enough in today’s cultural landscape. The film is masterfully directed and edited to drive home just how powerful simple messages of love, support and compassion can positively influence the most complicated aspects of modern life.

Ultimately, through its carefully curated footage of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” as well as archival interviews and his famous testimony in front of a U.S. Senate committee on funding children’s television, the film demonstrates how some of those messages hold true through all stages of life. It isn’t just kids, for instance, who feel the need to be heard and understood. It isn’t just kids who struggle through interpersonal conflict or face untimely tragedy.

I know this to be true because I was sitting in a pool of my own tears throughout the screening of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” amazed at how impactful sincerity can be in a world where we’re discouraged to show too much of our emotions. I heard lots of other sniffles in the theater too, and I’m far from the only person to write about the tear-inducing nature of the documentary.

Sure, I can be dismissed as soft. I bawled when I sent my oldest daughter to kindergarten on the first day. But maybe we need more soft in the world, because being hard and rigid about the way things are hasn’t really worked out.

The documentary directly addresses the cynicism of the Fred Rogers legacy. A stretch of the film specifically swats at the suggestion that telling kids they’re special somehow resulted in a generation of people who can’t function for the betterment of society. The movie combats this simply by clarifying Rogers’ intended message. As a producer of the film recently reiterated in a piece by NBC News, Rogers wanted to help “instill a confidence in children they could then extend into the betterment of society.”

He cites Rogers’ commencement speech at Dartmouth University shortly before his death, where he said, “Be true to the best within you… the deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things that which humankind cannot survive.”

The documentary climaxes on what should be the rallying cry for anyone who has ever tried to defend “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” against such simplistic accusations. It ties into one of Rogers’ most famous stories, about how as a child whenever he saw something scary on the news his mother would tell him to “Look for the helpers.” Even in times of disaster, there can be comfort in knowing there are still so many caring people in the world.

Already a powerful message, the documentary pushes this idea forward, concluding with the various interview subjects from the film reflecting on the people who helped them in their lives. It also challenges the viewer to stop asking “What would Mister Rogers do?” Instead, it asks, What Should You Do?

The world doesn’t have another Fred Rogers. He’s dead and gone. But showing compassion and support for others who need it is something we all have inside of us. We can accept people as they are. We can stand up for those who cannot stand themselves. We can all be helpers, whether you watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” or not. The legacy is less important than what we do.

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