If you look up “genuine” in the dictionary, the definition runs like this: truly what something is said to be, authentic. Fred Rodgers was genuine.
Most television personalities apply a persona to their presentation-an outer layer of flash and dazzle, just in case their personality doesn’t ring true. Rodgers didn’t need anything extra. He was the real deal, an honestly good man who had a simple idea: if you can connect with a child, you can help them. If you can help one, you can help many.
Director Morgan Neville’s plan with the new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is also simple, and that’s shining a light on one of the nicest guys in the history of show business, perhaps the world. He doesn’t draw up controversy or try to dig up dirt. Let’s be honest. There isn’t much when it comes to Rodgers, someone who didn’t like what he saw on television once upon a time and wanted to change the game.
When he was in ministry school and came home for his senior year, Rodgers sat down and watched this new thing called the television. He saw clowns and pranks being pulled, basically a lot of silliness. He felt like this brand new medium was being wasted on cheap humor. Rodgers wanted to use it for something greater. A way to connect with kids, which still stands as one of the hardest tasks in the world. Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood was born, and ran for over 1,600 episodes.
We all know the nice polite face who wrote, produced, and yielded ten different voices during every show. The man who put aside race, class, and other divisive issues in order to put together a show that healed and helped millions. If you grew up in the 1960’s through 2001, you remember what he stood for and did for so long.
What I had forgotten were the shows where Rodgers addressed sudden tragedies, like the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and when he went back on the air on October 23, 2001 after 9/11. It was one thing to talk to kids about history or how to fit into society, but it was quite another to describe what was going on in the world at that very moment and transcend it for a much younger audience. That was the magic of Mr. Rodgers. He was the morning news for adolescents.
Neville doesn’t shy away from the controversy of Rodgers’ legacy and life. The journalists who shamed him for telling every kid they were special. The rioters who stood outside his funeral ripping him for standing up for homosexuals during his life. When President Nixon wanted to scrap the media and take the funding from PBS, which aired Rodgers’ show, it was Fred that went in front of the Senate and told the world what he did. The hard-charging Senator relented and gave PBS the $20 million in funding that was required.
I don’t use the phrase “feel good” loosely in my reviews, especially when it comes to documentaries. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, though, will make you feel very good. It will raise your spirits and remind you that decency and goodwill aren’t dead just yet. Once upon a time, there was a guy who wanted to teach kids that it was okay to be yourself in a world that told you the opposite.
Try not to feel a rise in your chest when Rodgers stares down that Senator and tells him why his television program is more important than funding for a war that the United States couldn’t win. Rodgers didn’t raise his voice or change his message to better conjure the response that he wanted. He just told a guy what he did and why it mattered. That spoke to me.
When the end of the year comes along and award labels are thrown around, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will be on my short list for Best Documentary. It does what the best docs should in a dark room with intrigued souls: it informs and provokes a powerful reaction.
Well done, Neville. You brought Mr. Rodgers back to my neighborhood.