The most controversial thing Fred Rogers ever did is tell children that they are special. That their lives have value simply because they exist. That they don’t have to do anything sensational to be deserving of love.
Now, as a new documentary about Rogers’ life, legacy, and crusade for goodness hits screens, the first in multiple generations of children is growing up without Mr. Rogers as their guiding compass, their affirmational therapist, their neighbor. So it may be no coincidence that they are also a generation who have not just been told, but shown, that their lives are dispensable.
That might be too simplistic a conclusion were it not so powerful to observe the dissonance between Rogers’ most indelible message—“Won’t you be my neighbor?”—and the times we live in. It’s an age in which a promise to build a wall helped win an election; in which families are torn apart at the border; in which there are travel bans, deportations, and DREAMers facing broken promises; in which thousands of people—America’s children—are being mowed down by bullets, and lawmakers can’t be bothered to legislate so that it won’t happen again. So that more neighbors won’t be lost.
Because of how far we’ve devolved away from Rogers’ and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s message, director Morgan Neville didn’t think a film about the cultural icon could even be made.
“There’s a lot of affection for him,” Neville, an Academy Award-winner for the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, told us earlier this week, talking over a coffee in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood a few days before his film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, officially hits theaters. “But Fred is so deeply sincere, without a shred of irony to him. In this day and age, can you make a film that’s sincere?”
It was only after Neville traveled to Pittsburgh, where Rogers is from and where the Fred Rogers Center is located, that the need to make this movie clicked. The Center had every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood available to watch, but he asked to see one first: a special that aired only one time, after Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
Rogers knew children would need help processing the news. Smithsonian has a detailed description of the episode, in which Daniel, the hand puppet tiger, asks his human friend, Lady Aberlin, what “assassination” means. It’s a word he’d heard a lot that day. “Well, it means somebody getting killed in a…sort of surprise way,” she tells him. The explanation is frank, but gentle, and necessary.
By the time he finished the episode, any doubts Neville had about making the film evaporated. “I was like, ‘Okay, this. This is it,’” he says.
Different quotes from Rogers on topics like gun violence have surfaced depressingly often recently. The 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood occurred four days before the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As the nation processed yet another mass shooting, a clip went viral of Rogers speaking, of all places, on the senate floor, making a plea to senators to not cut funding for public broadcasting, as Nixon had proposed, and making the case for why his show and message had value.
“This is what I give: I give an expression of care, each day, to every child,” Rogers says in the clip. “And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger—much more dramatic than showing something [with] gunfire. I’m constantly concerned about what our children are seeing.”
The need to hear something like that felt palpable, as was our desire to be reassured by Rogers’ other mantra: “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you,” he would say at the end of every show. “There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.” As he worked on Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Neville sensed our ravenous appetite for the morsels of self-worth Rogers often fed us, to the point that the documentary was one of the hottest tickets at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
It sets up an interesting contrast. Fred Rogers’ voice is clearly one we need, and want, today. And yet, as Neville pointed out, it’s hard to imagine a voice like his breaking through in our current climate.
Even back in the 1980s, Rogers said that if he had come along then, instead of in the late 1960s, he wouldn’t have gotten a TV show. And that was 30 years ago. Today’s public influencers are the loudest voices bellowing the most extreme rhetoric, megalomaniac personalities who pander and incite for attention. Mr. Rogers was a minister who wore a cardigan and house slippers, whose show often relished silence. (One time he just set an egg timer and said, “You want to find out how long a minute is? Here, we’ll show you.” And then he did.)
“The unfortunate thing is that it’s a lot easier to motivate people by appealing to their fears rather than their love,” Neville says. “That’s just a sad part of how we’re wired as humans. If Fred saw those two things, the main pulls of love on the one hand and fear on the other, he would say that fear begets anger and hatred and resentment. So if you can address the fear, then you can address the hatred and anger.”
Fred Rogers’ ethos centered on the radical idea that the feelings of a child are every bit as powerful as an adult’s, and he treated those feelings with dignity. “I always thought I didn’t have to put on a funny hat or jump through the hoop to have a relationship with the child,” he once explained. His show was part child-development education and part ministry, revolving around the inherently recognizable idea of the neighborhood. A neighborhood provides understanding, safety, and familiarity. But it is also a place that breeds conflict. Real conflict. He wanted to help children make sense of all of that.
In 1968, when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood launched, the country was at war, and the show darkly reflected those fears and anxieties. In the very first week of the show, the puppet character King Friday put up a wall to declare war against “The Changers,” and the episode reckoned with the meaning of that. The series, as Neville points out, would regularly touch on these real-world themes often deemed too grown-up for kids to grapple with: death, divorce, grief. He would say that the outside world of children’s lives have changed, but their insides haven’t.
After 9/11, he returned from retirement to film reassuring testimonials for PBS, but everyone who worked with him could tell how rattled he was by the tragedy. Imagine, then, how he would react to events today.
“I think the school shootings are something that would strike at the very core of what Fred thought was evil,” Neville says. “Putting children in harm’s way, that broke his heart more than anything else.” Neville starts eyes start to mist as he thinks about this. “He would be really sad about where we’re at. But he was also somebody who would…who was such a good guy for trying to figure out a way out of sadness.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Rogers’ values are being politicized given the times we’re in. Neville might be asked about Donald Trump nearly as much as he’s asked about Fred Rogers.
“The film is not a liberal screed,” Neville says. “I’m not trying to say anything other than, ‘Here’s a film about a Republican minister who shares values that I think most of us would agree are core, positive values.’”
That the film is being politicized concerns Neville slightly, though Rogers throughout his career was never one to shy away from questions about cultural and political issues affecting society at the time, especially children. But what’s fascinating is that many of us have a relationship with Fred Rogers that pre-dates any sense of identity.
“When you’re watching the show, those of us who grew up with the show, you didn’t watch it as a Republican or a Democrat, or as religious or secular,” Neville says. “We barely even knew we were people. So the message that he’s giving speaks to something that’s more fundamental than those identity divisions. It’s the basic human values of how we should live together in a society. In a neighborhood.”
There’s undeniable resonance today in that simple phrase: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” It’s an invitation in a time of division and even expulsion.
Fred Rogers, then, is continuing his work from the afterlife. He’s helping the confused and the vulnerable—and that’s not just children; it never was—make sense of a scary time, reminding them of the power of kindness and love and the rewards they yield. He’s still providing comfort to those when they need to hear it the most, assuring them they are special exactly how they are, even if the most powerful person in the world ignorantly says otherwise.
“There’s no new Mr. Rogers, and there never will be,” Neville says, confessing that it’s maybe the question he’s been asked the most since he started showing Won’t You Be My Neighbor? at film festivals last winter. “If there’s a legacy, it’s reminding us that we can all be a little more like Mr. Rogers. I think it’s about activating the Mr. Rogers inside of all of us.”