MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Morgan Neville. Documentary
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired on public television from 1968 to 2001 and it was a different kind of program for children. Coming out at the same time as Sesame Street, Fred Rogers offered a slow-paced, relaxed way of viewing life. Rather than filling his 30 minutes with lessons about numbers and the alphabet, Mr. Rogers focused on the things that turned people on your street into a neighborhood, dealing with emotional themes such as jealousy, sharing, kindness, and respect alongside of serious topics like war and prejudice. These subjects were attached to the interpersonal relationships that are part of everyday life and Mr. Rogers mingled real life stories with adventures in The Land of Make Believe, the kingdom where King Friday XIII, Prince Tuesday, X the Owl and Daniel Tiger lived.
In other words, it was the second great commandment – “Love your neighbor as yourself” – in a language that children could understand. And the program’s intention was to speak directly to children one-on-one.
And as this documentary shows clearly that this was always the intention of the program. After starting in television, Fred Rogers went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained in the United Presbyterian Church in 1963 for ministry as an evangelist through media. (Talk about being ahead of your time!) After a few permutations, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood emerged. Just as the show was beginning to catch on, Congress was in the process of cutting funding from public television. The documentary features a truly amazing interchange between Fred Rogers and Sen. John Pastore, the chairman of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications that seems like a scene out of a Frank Capra film, filled with drama and passion.
The film does a wonderful job interspersing interviews with cast members and family with documentary footage and animated sequences featuring Daniel Tiger (who is considered the character on the show most closely modeled on Fred Rogers).
There are many moving moments in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the best thing you could do would be to seek out this film at your earliest convenience and give thanks for the singular genius who was Fred Rogers, who lived out the gospel so well that his adult children compare him to Jesus. Scene after scene reveals a neighborhood that moved outward to see beyond class, race, sexual orientation, physical abilities and anything that would exclude anyone. “You are special, just the way you are”, was Mr. Rogers’ catchphrase. If Jesus meant what he said about becoming a child to receive the Kingdom of God, Mr. Rogers is a worthy companion for our journey.
Five halos: Faith in action in one of the most moving and theologically grounded documentaries of recent years.
One pitchfork: Thanks to an outspoken – and funny – member of Mr. Rogers’ production crew – we are treated to mild profanities and photos of his backside – and voilà! – PG-13!
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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