Currently, the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor is sitting at a solid 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. There you will find oodles of actual film reviews discussing the technical merits and competencies of the documentary, as well as emotional assessments of its efficacy. I don’t feel the need to belabor the point. See it. Or don’t!
The documentary opened months ago in April at the Florida Film Festival, and I didn’t go. All the showings were sold out, but had I tried I could have gotten tickets.
When it opened at the Enzian, our local independent theater, still I shied. Even the outpouring of acclaim from friends on my Facebook feed didn’t sway me.
I just couldn’t go.
Recently I’ve had some personal issues, including a series of severe depressive episodes, that made me loathe to do the things I normally enjoy. I still do things, but it is to the bare minimum and with little relish. I saw friends, entertained, went to the movies, worked out, even wrote a bit, but it was all with the stoic, borderline spiteful feeling of ‘I should do this so that the depression doesn’t get the better of me.’ This mindset has been going on for years, but reached a head the last six months.
A poison garden had grown in my soul. The earth inside was soured by feelings of insecurity, anger, and bitterness, and ugly things had taken root. Unfortunately, I have mastered the science of burying feelings so well that not only were my friends fooled into believing I was all right, I had fooled myself, too.
A recent diagnosis (not life-threatening, but still a big deal and too personal to discuss here) last Friday was the flamethrower I needed to burn through all that spiky undergrowth. I spent the weekend in a daze, wondering what the hell comes next.
After a night of poor sleep and a chaotic day at work, I decided to do something good for myself. An email from the Enzian announcing the last week of Won’t You Be My Neighbor all but made the decision for me.
Let me be absolutely clear – I was ready to cry. I walked into the theater knowing I would, even wanting to. I started about 30 seconds in, and though never reached ugly sobs stage (not in the theater anyway), a steady trickle ran down my cheeks the whole running time.
Rogers’ work is outlined by his crew, friends, and family. An interesting fact that was never really mentioned was that most of the crew would return to work with him over the years on different runs and on different concepts, including his failed attempt at an adult version of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Old Friends and New Friends. To have a crew reconvene like that in show business is difficult, and I wondered if these people were just PBS’s staff that worked on whatever PBS was making at the time, or if they were so dedicated they would leave other work just for the opportunity to work with him.
Did Mr. Rogers make mistakes? Oh my, yes. His treatment of Francois Clemmons stands out, although Clemmons himself takes pains to clarify that Fred was always supportive of him as a person, and Clemmons even considered Rogers a surrogate father figure.
After the documentary was over, I hurried out of the theater, embarrassed by my tears. The ugly sobs started in my car, and required several minutes of decompression. I’m glad I took it; less because of the danger I posed to Orlando’s roads than the fact that I would have missed what happened next (just kidding, other people’s safety is paramount).
The audience came out of the theater. Some were pale, some had reddened eyes, some were crying openly, some hugged and held hands, some just stood looking dazed. One couple embraced as they cried, and I wondered who they were, where they were in their relationship – was this their first date? Was it just another date for them that they would look back on fondly, years later? Would they move on but look back on this moment and wonder where they went wrong after? Why were there no children at this very child-centric film?
I pondered about the rest of the crowd – would the movie’s effect and ultimate message of Don’t ask yourself what Fred Rogers would do, ask yourself what you would do remain fresh and become an ethos spurring them on to spread kindness and compassion? Would it fade over time? Maybe a little of both? Would they tell their friends to see it, and would word of it spread until it became viral, became a stitch in the wound this badly divided country needs?
I hope so.
I want to believe that we can all be the person Mr. Rogers knew we could be. Even with all the ugly things I’ve seen, including a fascination with serial killers that borders on pathological, I want to believe we can be better than we are right now.