Friday, June 29, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? — The gentle power of quiet joy

Won't You Be My Neighbor (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for archival footage of dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.29.18

In an intriguing case of serendipity, I caught this film within hours of learning about the passing of Koko, the western lowland gorilla famous for the depth of her communication skills via modified American Sign Language.

In a quiet response to an ugly example of American racism, Fred Rogers made a point
of sharing a foot bath with renowned African-American opera singer and frequent
co-star François Scarborough Clemmons, in the latter's guise as "Officer Clemmons."
Intriguing, because both this documentary — and the lengthy Los Angeles Times tribute to Koko — mention their 1998 meeting on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Intriguing, as well, because both were uniquely kind and gentle individuals, with a benevolent generosity of spirit that this country sorely lacks at the moment. Indeed, an interviewee wonders — toward the end of this film — just what Fred Rogers would make of our current institutional mendacity and incivility.

I suspect he’d spend a week to address it with the warmth, candor and calm moralizing that characterized every one of the 912 episodes that aired from Feb. 19, 1968, through Aug. 31, 2001.

Documentarian Morgan Neville’s heartfelt portrait of Rogers is as endearing as its subject: an engaging blend of Neighborhood clips, archival footage, interview excerpts with the man himself, and observations/reminiscences from those who lived and worked with him.

Neville has a knack both for selecting captivating subjects, and illuminating them in a manner that’s both instructive and fascinating. His nonfiction film work dates back to the mid 1990s; recent highlights include 2011’s Troubadours, which traces the lives and careers of Carole King and James Taylor; and 2013’s Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, an enchanting depiction of the mostly anonymous back-up singers who make pop stars sound as good as they do.

Plenty of famous faces visited Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood during its lengthy run, but Neville clearly wasn’t interested in a string of fawning accolades (no matter how sincere). Won’t You Be My Neighbor instead tackles its subject “from the inside out,” focusing on interviewees such as Rogers’ widow, sister, two sons and “Neighborhood” folks such as François Scarborough Clemmons (“Officer Clemmons”), producer/assistant director Margaret Whitmer and floor manager Nick Tallo (quite a hoot).

What emerges is the revealing evolution of an ordained minister who — literally at the last second — abandoned plans for church service and instead navigated a unique course in the uncharted waters of public television’s children’s programming. He was appalled by the soul-crushing cacophony that characterized network “kiddy TV” in the 1960s: the violence, the cruelty, the hyper-editing, the complete absence of redeeming social values, and — most of all — the noise.

Believing little children to be America’s most priceless treasure — a radical view at the time — Rogers wanted to be a positive, nurturing force. 

The Neighborhood that took shape was the antithesis of what was becoming ubiquitous in the entertainment world: The sets were simple and low-budget; camera set-ups and editing were conventional and restrained; the cardigan-clad Rogers moved and spoke with measured grace; and he surrounded himself with unsophisticated, retro-style hand puppets with droll names such as Henriette Pussycat, Cornflake S. Pecially, King Friday XIII and — Rogers’ own alter-ego, of a sort, as we discover — Daniel Striped Tiger.

Rogers insisted on treating young viewers — his target audience was 2- to 5-year-olds — with respect. He acknowledged their ability to “handle” life’s weightiest issues via plain-spoken conversations presented simply and directly. 

And they were conversations, and not merely when he chatted with his puppets or human co-stars such as Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin), Mr. McFeely (David Newell) and Handyman Negri (Joe Negri). Rogers “broke the fourth wall” like no other performer: staring directly into the camera, projecting an aura of kindness, and speaking with such smiling earnestness that young viewers felt he was talking to them personally.

Right from the start, and to everybody’s astonishment, Rogers tackled controversial, third-rail topics such as race, divorce and politics. Mere months after his show debuted, Rogers bravely devoted an episode to the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

When real-world events upset him, Rogers relied on the wisdom of his spiritual teachings: He never got angry, he quietly got even. After learning that hateful white racists had attacked black people in a community swimming pool — archival video footage that Neville resurrects — Rogers made a point, on a subsequent Neighborhood episode, of inviting his African-American co-star, Officer Clemmons, to share the delight of dipping their feet into a little wading pool.

As both men make small talk about how cool and inviting this experience is, Rogers smiles toward the camera, and the message is clear: See? This is how nice people behave.

Industry skeptics — even some at nascent PBS — who felt Rogers was doing it all wrong, and that his show never would succeed, were put in their place when he was invited to do a public meet ’n’ greet. Expectations were modest, but as we see — thanks to great archival footage — the line of eager parents and children stretched for blocks. 

Most endearing is the rapport that Rogers shares with his young admirers, who instantly feel able to talk to him. And why not? After all, he’s been talking directly to them, every day, for weeks and months.

Perhaps the most triumphant act of Rogers’ career, however — a true stunner — occurred in 1969, when newly elected President Nixon wanted to halve the $20 million budget that departing President Johnson had promised to PBS. During a session with the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications, numerous impassioned individuals plead the value of public broadcasting, all of them failing to dent the contemptuous, tight-fisted exterior of cranky Chairman (and Rhode Island Senator) John Pastore.

We then watch as an obviously nervous Rogers takes the microphone, his courage rising as he’s granted permission to explain precisely what he does, with his program, and of the necessity of sheltering, protecting and revering children. His soft-spoken approach feels all wrong in this setting, and beyond sentimentally corny; we expect Pastore to interrupt with a cynical sneer of contempt.

What happens — happened — instead is nothing short of astonishing.

Neville builds his narrative to the public service announcements that a shaken Rogers made, in the wake of 9/11. Even more touching, though, is the request — as the film concludes — for us to do what Rogers often encouraged of his young viewers: to silently think about somebody important, who helped us along the way. As we do this, Neville cuts among most of his film’s talking heads, all of whom have been asked to do the same.

It’s a deeply powerful — even spiritual — moment.

We need Mr. Rogers’ wisdom now, more than ever. But if we can’t experience freshly relevant doses of his guidance, Neville’s film poignantly reminds us that his core message — how we should behave, and how we should treat each other — remains timeless.

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