'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' And 'Nanette' Brim With Heart And Humanity

Jul 26, 2018
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Summer's considered a time for light entertainment. But, sometimes, something more serious slips through the cracks and gets everybody talking. This year, that's happened with Morgan Neville's documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette," a standup show on Netflix. Our critic at large John Powers says these shows have something in common that helps explain why they've become touchstones.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I don't know about you, but I find American life these days positively exhausting. Everything is always trying to wind you up, from political tweets and cable news to sports debate shows, thrill-ride movies and Internet headlines that will say anything to make you click on a link. Small wonder that many people are looking for things that don't do that, but that offer what we might call counterprogramming to our whole troll-infested culture.

Audiences have found that in what may be the summer's most surprising and beloved hits - "Won't You Be My Neighbor," Morgan Neville's moving documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and star of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," and "Nanette," starring the Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, which has been called transformative by viewers, critics and her fellow comedians.

Of the two, the more simply enjoyable is "Won't You Be My Neighbor," which is neither an exercise in nostalgia - though it will make you nostalgic - nor a deep dive into Mr. Rogers' personal life, though we do see an interviewer ask him if he's gay. He was not. But in both his fey manner and passionate beliefs, he was nobody's idea of a conventional manly man either.

Born into money, ordained as a Christian minister, registered as a lifelong Republican, Rogers turned out to be a gentle radical whose mission was to embody and promote humane values. As Neville shows, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was inspired by Rogers' dismay at the existing television shows for children, which he thought degrading, fatuous, thoughtlessly violent and designed to transform kids into consumers.

And so in the '60s, he created a kinder and wiser space, a neighborhood that embraced joy. Let's make the most of this beautiful day. It also helped kids grapple with such difficult realities as divorce, death, even assassination. Tacitly championing tolerance every single day, Rogers used his authority to make everyone feel appreciated for being who they actually are. Here, he explains why.

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FRED ROGERS: Love is at the root of everything - all learning, all parenting, all relationships, love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.

POWERS: If anyone would second Rogers' words, it would be Gadsby, who hails from a conservative Christian area of Tasmania, where 70 percent of the people believe homosexuality should be a crime. As a butch-looking lesbian, she spent her life being thought outside the norm. And in her show, she finds a striking new form for expressing what that means. "Nanette" starts off like your usual comedy act as Gadsby, whose patter comes accompanied by a nervous giggle, makes jokes about gender and lesbianism, telling us seemingly irrelevant things about her life that later prove very relevant.

Then, she shifts gears, and we discover a value she shares with Fred Rogers, a refusal to play along with the rules of the medium of which they are a part. Just as he thought ordinary TV demeaned children, Gadsby explains why she can no longer do stand-up. She argues that stand-up works by ratcheting up tension with psychologically fraught material then releasing it with a punchline. And the demands of this process, tension and release, keep you from saying anything that doesn't fit into that pattern. In Gadsby's case, that means she spent years turning her psychic wounds into self-deprecating jokes. The need to be funny has kept her from telling the truth, especially about pain and trauma. But no longer.

For the rest of the special, she shares her truth, from her changing relationship with her mother to her feminist loathing of Picasso to her impatience with straight, white men who act offended at being labeled straight, white men when they're quite happy labeling her a lesbian. With her nervous giggle gone, she's not being funny anymore. She tells about the self-hatred instilled in her for being gay and about being beaten and sexually assaulted. Righteously angry, she shows us the real woman behind the amused persona we first met.

Now, it's worth pointing out that neither Gadsby nor Rogers are scolds who hate art, which is, after all, a way of expressing feelings and truths that can't be fully expressed any other way. In fact, both are consciously artful in what they do. But they also suggest that too much commercial entertainment is dehumanizing because it's all about prompting an instantly pleasurable reaction. "Won't You Be My Neighbor" and "Nanette" do precisely the opposite. They're humanizing. And that, I think, is why audiences love them so much. In Rogers and Gadsby, we find something rare, performers who are trying to address us in the most soulful way they possibly can. They're not trying to troll us or to make us react but to make us think about how we live and how we might do it better.

DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com.

If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our interview with Michael Arceneaux about growing up black, Catholic and gay in Houston or our interview with novelist Emily Danforth and director Desiree Akhavan about the film "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post," based on Danforth's novel, check out our podcast where you'll find those and other interviews.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY DEFRANCO AND TERRY GIBBS' "SLEEPY OLD MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.