It’s a beautiful day in this neighbourhood, a beautiful day for a neighbour, would you be mine? Could you be mine?
It was in fact another beautiful day in Austin, Texas when we shunned the sunshine in favour of a SXSW venue to watch Morgan Neville’s documentary about everybody’s childhood friend, Mr. Rogers. It was the 10th day of a 10 day film festival, and Sean and I were worn down but still happy to be there, bellies full of fajitas, not minding the neighbourhood at all, except for the unfortunate fact that there was a bomber on the loose. [You may have read about this in the news – the package bombings had started slightly before the festival began and continued, threats shutting down an event, and police dogs sniffing the larger venues for traces of explosives. The alleged bomber died days later, blowing himself up when the cops arrived to arrest him] But the festival always felt like a safe space and we’d seen lots of great movies and done some once-in-a-lifetime things, and were not just coasting until the closing movie Isle of Dogs later that night.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? seemed like a good way to spend an innocuous afternoon. The documentary had been well-received at Sundance, and Sean and I both had some warm, if fuzzy, memories if the cardigan-wearing man who sang his gentle songs to us through the TV.
Turns out, Mr. Rogers was a much more interesting man than I ever knew. An ordained minister, he was at the forefront of childhood development and had some very concrete ideas on how children needed to be treated in order to feel safe and secure – and how television could be a tool toward that goal, but mostly wasn’t.
The documentary has clips from old shows, ancient, that date back to the 1960s, black and white stuff I never knew existed. It’s also got archival footage of him in interviews, and clips from TV shows he did aimed at adults, which are quite another thing. But he’s the same guy, always: slow, steady speech, in that comforting tone of voice, slightly goofy, easy smile, bushy eyebrows, lean, lolloping gait. He spoke directly to children, and sometimes on very difficult, specific topics. I was floored to hear one of his puppets ask what ‘assassination’ meant – but yes, he did dare to cover such things as they made national headlines.
But what is Mr. Rogers’ legacy? This is where the documentary gets really interesting. Did he succeed in making children confident? Or, as some critics say, did he render them entitled when he told each and every one of us that we were special? He was a bit of a radical in his way, and he likely had some effect on most of us North Americans, one way or another. He’s been dead more than a decade but we’re still remembering him with some reverence, and it’s fun to look back – because his history is also our childhoods, and that’s something we can all share.