Regardless of your personal beliefs, be it political or what have you, I think we can all agree that there is this really hostile divide happening out there. One only needs to spend two seconds on the internet to learn that communication has devolved into hurling insults and attacking others with the ferocity of starved dogs. There is no room left for civil discussion or respectful disagreement. Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary by Director Morgan Neville, tells the story of Fred Rogers, a man who thoroughly believed that changing people’s hearts came from kindness and communication. His audience was children, and he refused to pander towards them. Instead, Mr. Rogers chose to respect them and help them understand the things that were happening in their lives. He made their world less scary by being a calm and peaceful presence. The film is amazing, and the highest compliment I can give to it is that it absolutely illustrates why in this day and age someone like Mr. Rogers is so terribly missed.
“…it will make you appreciate Fred Rogers and his legacy.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor starts with a recap of Fred Rogers’ career in television. He was a man who discovered television at its beginning and realized its potential as a tool to teach instead of mindlessly entertaining the masses. The film goes on to explore how his show ultimately came to be and then delves into who Rogers was, and how his exceptional way of thinking bled into the countless hours of children’s programming he produced. I think a really fascinating aspect of this documentary was getting to know a more adult side of Fred Rogers. He had a sense of humor that did stray a little blue at times. He was not a lewd or vulgar man from what his co-workers, collaborators, and family explained. One story that stood out had Rogers telling someone he worked with “I like you. I like you because you don’t kiss my ass.” Another one that made the theater burst into thunderous laughter was a story about a crewmember that, as a joke, liked to take cameras lying around the set and photograph his butt. The joke would be, someone would have to take the film to get developed and then they’d find a random shot of someone’s ass. Fred Rogers found a camera with an ass shot on it, and without giving it away, he did something really humorous and something totally not expected by those who grew up watching him as kids.
“It was fascinating to delve into Rogers’ frustrations, fears, self-doubts, and explore how they informed his relationships with his friends and family.”
This film does not sully Rogers’ clean-cut image, but it adds depth and layers to it that makes him an even more interesting person to examine. Speaking of adding depth and layers, we hear about what kind of a person he was from a lot of talking heads, all providing invaluable knowledge into what made Fred Rogers tick. It was fascinating to delve into Rogers’ frustrations, fears, self-doubts, and explore how they informed his relationships with his friends and family. It’s oddly reassuring to know someone who was such a force of positivity also dealt with his own issues of anger and inadequacies.
I also appreciated how this documentary didn’t shy away from Mr. Rogers’ personal beliefs. He was a Christian and a Republican. He was an ordained minister and his beliefs were important to him, and in so many subject documentary pieces personal beliefs are glossed over. While politics are never explored too deeply, and the film never gets overtly preachy, it’s nice to gain a sense of the things that made him who he was. Despite his political and religious leanings, his entire life revolved around loving others. This was his “143” philosophy, which stands for “I Love You.” He showed love and kindness to François Scarborough Clemmons, a cast member on his television show that happened to be African American. In a time where black people weren’t allowed to swim with white people, Mr. Rogers showed the two of them soaking their feet together on television in defiance. When Clemmons came out as gay, Mr. Rogers was still accepting of him. He sang a song to Jeff Erlanger, a quadriplegic child that said, “It’s you I like, every part of you”, and in 1969 on behalf of children everywhere, he went toe to toe with Senator John Pastore, someone who had clear intentions of taking away funding for PBS, and turned his heart with his impassioned pleas. So much of what Rogers did in his life was out of love, and
Neville paints a perfect picture of that sentiment with his chosen footage and interviews. The film also explores rumors that pestered Fred Rogers all throughout his life, such as his military background and his alleged homosexuality. I feel like Neville addresses these things in a perfect fashion and then moves on to what’s far more important.
“…it’s nice to gain a sense of the things that made him who he was.”
Another thing I have to bring up about Won’t You Be My Neighbor is its phenomenal usage of animation. Mr. Rogers had a puppet of a tiger named Daniel Tiger that served as a sort of physical manifestation to his inner child monologue. There are scenes accompanied by narration that show Daniel doing things that look straight out of a moving storybook. The art is so exquisite to look at; I’d love to see a feature film in that art style someday. I can’t say enough great things about this movie. It will make you laugh, and it will certainly make you cry, but better yet it will make you appreciate Fred Rogers and his legacy, as well as hopefully inspiring you to be a little kinder towards the people you meet in life, because it’s just as Mr. Rogers believed, we are all neighbors.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) Directed by Morgan Neville. Starring Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, François Scarborough Clemmons, Betty Aberlin. Won’t You Be My Neighbor premiered as part of the Doc Premieres Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
9 out of 10