The Mister Rogers Movie Deserved to Win an Oscar

The Mister Rogers Movie Deserved to Win an Oscar

Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the best and most popular documentary film of 2018, was snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While the film was a huge box office success for a documentary, it was not even nominated for an Academy Award. That’s a shame because director Morgan Neville’s portrait of the late Fred Rogers is just what our bitterly divided country, embroiled in a government shutdown, needs right now.

The Academy should have honored a very good movie that showcased the voice of a man who embodied empathy, kindness, caring, and especially love of children. Instead, they chose to ignore this film beloved by many. Sadly, fewer Americans will hear Fred Rogers telling them, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

I watched Mister Rogers with my kids and read his writings as an early childhood educator, so I expected Won’t You Be My Neighbor to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. But it was far more than that. The movie was a window into a man whose ability to understand and accept people for who they are was extraordinary. He believed in the innate dignity and unique worth of all people, what he called their “specialness.” Fred Rogers saw the value of every child, understood the importance of their feelings, and believed in respecting all children regardless of race, religion, gender, ability, economic status, or family structure. In his neighborhood, migrant children would have been received with love.

So often during my career in early childhood education and as a parent, I asked myself, what would Mister Rogers do or say about this? I know he was dispirited after 9/11, even though he put out a series of public service announcements to try to help children with their fear and anxiety. He told children what his mother told him when terrible things were happening, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

An ordained Presbyterian minister and lifelong Republican, Mister Rogers was the embodiment of a kinder, more civil America in which the true values of his faith were reflected in his respect for children. I can’t imagine how Mister Rogers would have reacted to the treatment of children coming into our country with asylum-seeking families. “Tender age shelters” where infants and toddlers ripped from their parents are supervised (not cared for) by people instructed not to touch the kids would have broken his heart. Fred Rogers’s death from stomach cancer in 2003 was a great loss to the fabric of American life, but I don’t think he could have found the words to comfort children from the horrors that are being done to other children in the name of securing our borders.

Mister Rogers’s message of decency, kindness, respect, empathy, and love is desperately needed these days. The Washington Post reported that Donald Trump’s Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, couldn’t understand why federal workers need food banks during the government shutdown in which they have missed a month’s pay thus far. He suggested they should instead seek low-interest loans from banks and credit unions to supplement their lost wages. Like his friend Trump, Ross is extremely wealthy.

Remember some of the suggestions our government gave to the over 800,000 federal employees for how to get by while working for no pay? Ask creditors or banks for leeway in making mortgage or credit card payments. Trade handyman services such a carpentry or fixing toilets for reduced rent payments. The Office of Personnel Management advised furloughed workers to “consult with your personal attorney.” Does our government think a single working parent has an attorney? Does our President think a childcare provider will watch children for no pay while their parents work for no pay? Does he even care?

There are no words of comfort in the face of this thoughtless and cruel use of federal employees as hostages to fulfill a campaign chant to build a wall. But perhaps these words from Mister Rogers will make some Trump supporters rethink their allegiance to this administration:

We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes. 

I cried many times watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I cried for our cowardly and callous leaders who will never understand what Mister Rogers meant when he said, “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.” I cried for our country that has lost its way. I cried because I can’t find an answer to the question that plagued Fred Rogers throughout his career, how to make goodness attractive. But I am thinking about his answer.

By doing whatever we can do to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own–by treating our “neighbor” at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything that we produce.

Today, I try to comfort myself by remembering what Mister Rogers called the three ways to ultimate success,

The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.

I am trying to understand why The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t nominate a movie that spoke to many and should be seen by many more who would have wanted to watch the winning movie after the awards show. Rather than putting on a long and boring show with actors wearing fancy clothing and ribbons for various causes, they could have made an important statement by nominating Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I’ll go further and say the Oscar should have gone to this film in which Fred Rogers used a Hebrew phrase that has always guided my life, “We all are called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is streaming now. It will be shown for free on PBS and HBO on February 9. See it instead of the Oscars on February 24. It will be a far better use of your time. Then do whatever you can to repair the world.

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