One of the more touching moments in Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the deeply moving new documentary on Mister Rogers, is a passage about François Clemmons. Clemmons first became famous for playing Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in the late 1960s, at the heart of the civil rights movement. Rogers and Clemmons had an on-screen rapport that helped some viewers of the time reconcile themselves to the simple image of a white man and a black man coming together in friendship—and for the sake of a greater good. In 1969, at the height of tensions around desegregation, there was an episode where Rogers sat outside his makeshift home with Clemmons. The two dipped their bare feet into a small child's pool, their submerged feet close, almost touching. They talked about their days, as if nothing could be more natural.
In the new documentary, Clemmons, now in his early seventies and openly gay, tells the story of how Rogers advised him not to go to gay clubs while he was working on the show, and asked him to avoid any signifiers of his identity, like the hoop earring that he once tried to wear on air. Rogers also encouraged him to marry a woman, pushing Clemmons into a marriage that, perhaps predictably, failed within a few years. In each of these instances, Rogers was seeking to avoid alienating the show's more conservative viewers, as he explained to Clemmons in the late '60s and early '70s.
In short, Rogers was happy to challenge the status quo on race, and in private he supported the identity of Clemmons as a friend, but didn't want to risk the show's image.
After we learn all this information in the movie, Clemmons proceeds to tell another story: "On the show, he would say, 'I love you just the way you are.' One day I said, 'Fred, were you talking to me?' And he looked at me and he said, 'Yes, I've been talking to you for two years and you finally heard me today.' And I just collapsed into his arms. I started crying. That's when I knew I loved him. No man had ever told me that he loved me like that. I needed to hear it all my life. My dad never told me, my stepfather never told me. So from then on, he became my surrogate father."
Director Morgan Neville places this story right at the heart of the documentary, and it offers a complicated version of Mister Rogers: a man who made a show where he urged everyone to be themselves, but also asked a central cast member to set aside his identity to protect the show. It's a complicated story that shows the type of unstoppable love Rogers felt for those close to him, even if the times weren't ready for that love, and even when he himself didn't know how to navigate it gracefully.
If the documentary has a moral to offer, it's one that adults find themselves faced with now: That we must nurture the thoughts and ideas of children with vigor, so that one day those children can have the boldness and self-possession to demand that those ideas be listened to. Rogers succeeded as an entertainer and as a kind of spiritual leader because, before anything else, he viewed children as smart and capable of wrestling with difficult topics. His show was unafraid to address race, sure, but he also took on topics like war, death, divorce, and fear. And because he insisted that children could comprehend all of these things at once, his show was rich, layered, and challenging for both parents and kids.
A viewer realizes early on that Rogers himself had a somewhat childlike approach built into his personal ethos. On its face, waxing poetic about how people should get along because we're all exactly the same, and how love will save each of us equally—these are flawed and exhausting sentiments, and these days they're often echoed by people not much interested in considering the nuances of identity, usually because they have settled on a default "American" identity, often some hopeful version of colorblindness that appeals to white progressives.
Fred Rogers dealt differently with these apparent clichés and succeeded because he did so the way a child would. Some of our prejudices and hatreds and violence—racism, homophobia, sexism—are learned as we age. They accumulate with the years and then harden the way we approach the world. But for a child, there is the concept of what a human is, and then there is curiosity about what a human can be. Rogers, who immersed himself in considering the potential of childhood thinking, benefited from this desire to learn. He seemed to understand that the human core is the same in all of us, and approached the outer differences—the ones that determine how the world treats us—with reverence and a love-driven curiosity, questioning his way toward kinship, much as a child might, even when Rogers faltered in judgment, or bowed to the times, as he did with Clemmons. Rogers was always bringing himself closer to people through an outgoing curiosity that allowed them to know they were loved, interesting, and valuable.
At the start of the documentary, we're told that Rogers was a lifelong registered Republican, and this simple move by the director feels pointed, as though it's meant to place Rogers at odds with the current GOP, a party that so vehemently rejects the core ethos of his show and personality. I found this line especially interesting because of the many adults and commenters—many of them Republicans—who use Rogers as a talking point to decry the ills of the Millennial generation. It was Mister Rogers, these people say, who created a generation of entitled young people, all because he ended every show by telling children that they were special just as they were.
I watched the Mister Rogers show as a kid, when my neighborhood was not at all like his neighborhood. When I was especially young and impressionable, I yearned to go on the show. I wanted to sit at his feet and have him tell me a story; I wanted to laugh with the other children sitting beside me at his feet. Not just because you could see black kids and black people in his neighborhood, but because, within the walls of his makeshift space, it felt as though every question had an answer, and I was a curious child who was overjoyed to get to live in that neighborhood for a little while every afternoon. I imagined his house as real, perhaps a place on the other side of town from my own. This was the glory of the show's structure, but also the glory of Rogers himself, who looked directly into the camera as he spoke and always smiled easily. He was a teacher, but he didn't demand perfection so much as he demanded a furthering of the imagination. Whatever rested on the other side of that was good enough.
It is fashionable to call Millennials lazy and entitled, and Rogers is a perfect fall guy to blame for having sown those alleged seeds in the Millennial brain, especially because he's no longer here to defend himself. But when he looked in the camera at the end of every show and told kids like me that we were special, that he liked us just the way we were, I felt briefly important, no matter what else was going on in my world: poverty, or a fear that I might not fit in at school with my long and complicated Arabic name. Rogers wasn't telling me that I didn't need to work and earn the right to be great; instead, he was reminding me that I deserved a spot on this planet and a chance to feel good about myself, even if I wasn't doing anything great in that particular moment.
Right now, children are in cages along our border, and politicians and pundits are arguing semantics, and whether we can call cages cages, or whether or not children in cages are technically being mistreated, or what the extent of imprisonment is. Mister Rogers would not be able to solve this migrant crisis. There is a part at the end of the film where his loved ones reflect on what he'd be feeling if he were alive now, and the cynic in me worries that, had he survived, the world might finally have worn down his hopeful and curious joy. It makes sense for people generations older than me not to have an interest in the Rogers message: the idea that children should be afforded space and freedom to be curious, and that those curiosities might help them find their way to some better future than their present. When people debate whether or not children should be freed and reunited with their families, the question of whether childhood should be considered sacred and special—at least beyond the wealthier precincts of America—is out the window.
People are still wondering how to explain atrocities to their children, though, and it's in those moments that I miss Fred Rogers the most. I remember him, shortly after September 11th, coming on the television to play his old piano and deliver a short message to children and their parents. I was far too old to watch as a 17-year-old freshman in college. But I was confused and afraid that week, so I tuned in to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for a few minutes, just as I'd always done. I walked away feeling not singular or special, but briefly comforted. When people wonder how to explain the world to their children, too few of us think to do it as Mister Rogers did: Tell them the truth, and then let them feel around the world on their own for the parts of it that make sense.