Morgan Neville wisely seeks the man through his works rather than delving too deeply into his past.
It’s safe to say we’ll never see another entertainer quite like Fred Rogers — a man pure of heart and strong of character, yet able to communicate a genuine vulnerability that resonated with young children. He was a friend, a mentor, a pioneer, and as the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? illustrates, a man who wasn’t afraid to tackle any subject.
“Love is the root of everything, or the lack of it.”
That was the simple motivation of Rogers when he began his seminal children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood back in 1968. It was immediately clear that this would be a new kind kid’s show, focused not on silly superheroes or wacky cartoon characters, but the careful consideration of childhood fears.
Rogers was fearless when it came to advocating for children. Director Morgan Neville captures the essence of this passion through archival interviews with Rogers and clips from particularly pivotal episodes of his show. The film starts at the beginning, as the inaugural episode finds King Friday XIII building a wall around the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because he’s angry about all the changes happening. This pointed attempt to assuage fears of change in the tumultuous late ’60s feels painfully relevant for the modern world and makes you yearn for Rogers’s steadying voice once again.
That yearning for the purity of Rogers’s vision is a theme revisited often by each of Neville’s interviewees. Producers from the show, friends, and family members celebrate the life of a man who, despite his obvious influence, remained dubious about his celebrity until the day he died. An ordained minister who was called “Fat Freddy” during his childhood years, Rogers sought to cultivate the humanity in everyone, be they friend or foe.
This ability to empathize is never more evident than when Mister Rogers goes to Washington in 1969. Facing the Senate Subcommittee on Communications as it threatens to strip the Corporation for Public Broadcasting of its $20 million in federal funding, Rogers makes an impassioned plea, which includes a charming song from his show about asserting control over your anger. After hearing the song, Committee Chairman John O. Pastore smiles and sheepishly concedes, “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
Over his show’s 31 seasons, Rogers tackled every topic imaginable, from death and divorce to kids injuring themselves while pretending to be Superman. His tiny cast of actors and puppets (all voiced by Rogers) talked frankly about complicated current events with delicate candor. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Rogers soaked his feet in the same backyard swimming pool as his African-American friend, Officer Clemmons (Francois Clemmons), even drying the man’s feet when they were finished.
Neville, best known for helming the Oscar-winning doc 20 Feet from Stardom, wisely seeks the man through his works rather than delving too deeply into his past or his private life. Rogers’s wife of over 50 years, Joanne, is barely mentioned in the film and his children make only brief appearances during interviews. Regardless, there are plenty of insights to be found.
Everyone agrees, for example, that Daniel Striped Tiger was Rogers’s surrogate for most of the show’s run. He openly despised consumer culture, cringing at the brutality used to sell children’s toys. More surprisingly, he mercilessly teased his close-knit television crew. When one crew member sends Rogers a cheeky picture of his naked backside, Rogers makes a poster of the man’s assets to be used as a Christmas gift.
There’s really no escaping a good cry while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Only a robot wouldn’t be affected by Rogers’s tender interactions with children. In fact, even a robot might shed a tear when Rogers eases the suffering and fears of a little boy whose dog just died or sings a duet with a paraplegic boy in a wheelchair. You could argue this imagery was manipulative were it not for Rogers’s complete sincerity in everything he did.
If there is one blemish exposed on Rogers’s record it’s his reluctance to acknowledge homosexuality. When Clemmons came out as gay to Rogers, he was instructed to conceal his sexuality for fear of backlash from sponsors. In his own inimitable style, Rogers rectified this error in judgement by forming an abiding friendship with the actor, becoming something of a surrogate father to him in the process.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a celebration of one man’s deeds and the kindness that informed all of his works. While it also dispels many of the bizarre myths surrounding Rogers, including his prolific killing record in the Marines (he never served), the film only bolsters his standing as a legend and a cult hero. If only for a few hours, this documentary proves that human kindness can be contagious.
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