Fred Rogers had gall. He wasn’t an inked-up war hero, contrary to a popular urban legend. But a stirring new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, makes clear that the cardigan-clad ordained minister used his long-running children’s program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to radically yet discreetly champion for good, and address life’s weightiest issues.
In a scene from 1969, Rogers invites a black policeman to soak his feet with him in a kiddie pool, while offscreen the nation’s public swimming areas remained a hotbed of racial unrest. In another, from 1987, Daniel Tiger, Rogers’ puppet proxy, repeatedly wonders aloud whether he’s a mistake, as Lady Aberlin tries to assure him otherwise.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? drives home that, with these scenes and others, Rogers hoped to teach Americans, young and old, how to show mercy; temper hatred; and, above all, preserve their childlike sense of wonder in the face of pain and suffering.
The tragedy is that too few people seemed to have listened.