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For Gen-X Americans, particularly ones at the older end of the generation’s spectrum, children’s TV star Fred Rogers was more than just a genial middle-aged man in a cardigan with a train set. Even the overused word icon doesn’t come close to capturing his centrality to their childhoods.
As the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, one of the PBS network’s keystone programmes for kids (alongside Sesame Street) from the late 60s onwards, he was, for many, the first star they would have been aware of, a friend who spoke straight to them in a gentle, oddly stilted, faintly southern drawl. As they grew older, Mr Rogers might come to be someone they mocked or imagined had a dark secret not fit for younger viewers. This documentary by Morgan Neville reveals that he really was just what he seemed to be at first innocent sight: a kind-hearted, square but saintly man who genuinely loved and understood children.
Just as professionally and seamlessly assembled as Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom, his Oscar-winning tribute to unsung back-up singers, Neighbor constructs an elegant tribute to its subject through a collage of archive footage and original interviews. Testimony from those who knew and loved the late Rogers, including his wife, children, friends and former colleagues, reveal a compelling back story of a shy, insecure man who was drawn to religion first and then later the burgeoning field of child psychology. But the deeper narrative here touches on shifting ideas about childhood and how children should be entertained and educated. For all his hokey trappings and Republican sympathies, Rogers was a revolutionary in his way, quietly promulgating messages of tolerance and self-acceptance. Prompted by racist clashes over desegregated swimming pools in the south, he insisted on making a segment for his show in which he and Mr Clemmons, the series’ black neighbourhood policeman, bathed their feet together. That said, Rogers wasn’t quite at ease with the news that in real life Clemmons was gay, but, as the latter explains, they stayed friends all their lives, and Rogers came to accept Clemmons’ sexuality.
Elsewhere, archive footage shows Rogers convincing a congressional committee not to defund public television, an act of heroism in itself that goes to prove sometimes childhood idols were entirely worthy of worship.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? review – shining a light on a kindly kids’ TV idol | Film