By Sheila Johnson
Of all the endeavors I’ve helped bring to life, I’m not so sure the one dearest to my heart isn’t the Middleburg Film Festival, which annually showcases some of the world’s most compelling new films.
Two entries at this year’s recent event, in particular, filled my heart with hope (even as they filled my eyes with tears). A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which kicked off our first full day, and Willie, which opened Day Two, in many ways couldn’t have been more different.
The first was scripted; the second a documentary.
The first was about one the most recognizable faces in America and starred one of our best-known actors. The second had at its core a small-town Canadian hockey player who had, maybe, fifteen minutes of fame six decades ago and one who’d labor in relative obscurity for the balance of a 20-year career.
But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Willie both told similar stories; that of a unique man who, in his day (and in his own way), attempted to tear down walls and build bridges using a weapon few people, even now, view as a sign of strength.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stars Tom Hanks and Fred Rogers – the tall, laconic guy with the cardigan sweaters and nurturing voice – who was a star of his own show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, served as the unofficial Favorite Uncle for three generations of American youngsters.
And the film tells the story of how one particular writer full of anger is saved, if not forever changed, by the kindness and humanity he watches Fred Rogers regularly display toward his fellow man – himself included.
Willie, on the other hand, tells the story of Willie O’Ree, a humble, hockey-loving kid from New Brunswick, who (as the world now knows) in 1958 became the first black man to appear in an NHL game. And the film, recounts the efforts of a few advocates to get Willie – the Jackie Robinson of Hockey – at long last, inducted into his sport’s Hall of Fame.
And, as much as anyone, Willie is the reason you’re reading this now. Mr. O’Ree, you see, (even at 84) was gracious enough to join me at this year’s festival.
And what I beheld in our brief time together was a remarkable display of human dignity. And who I came to know in our three days was a man humbled yet unbowed by life and its many ups and downs. Because while Willie O’Ree may not have been a big star in his day – and part of the reason for that is something revealed in the film – he never gave up hope and never compromised or lost sight of the values instilled in him.
And to have watched people come up to shake his hand, thank him, and take selfies, was to have watched people trying to warm their hands on the glow of his kindness. You could see it in their eyes.
In this day and age, we’re being bombarded with a brand of hatred, fear and ignorance that is now defining us – Willie O’Ree is truly a man whose time has come.
Just like Fred Rogers was able to tear down the wall around one writer’s heart, freeing him of his bottled up anger, O’Ree is a man whose willingness to openly practice kindness in the face of racist taunts decades ago is as needed now as his breaking of hockey’s color line was back in the day.
If, indeed, the purpose of great art is to entertain even as it enlightens, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Willie stand as glowing examples of great art and even greater story telling. And I am proud to have played even a small role in introducing both to the world at large.
What’s more, I now find myself, after having seen both, far less disheartened about our chances of coming together once again as a nation. Because, just as Mr. Rogers and Mr. O’Ree recently showed me recently in two dark rooms in my hometown film festival, while anger and hatred remain personal choices for us, so too does kindness.
The difference is, as I was reminded watching the stories of both men, the first two are no match for the incredible power of the latter.