Making a World of Difference: Won’t You Be My Neighbor [Movie Review]
Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships — love, or the lack of it.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a captivating film documentary about the fruitful life and bountiful career of Fred Rogers, the beloved father-figure and friend to many millions of children over two generations who desperately needed a father-figure and friend during the most formative period of their lives.
The movie is currently playing in select theaters nationwide. It’s no summer blockbuster. But it sure packs a far more lasting emotional punch than any big-budget Marvel superhero. This superhero wears a sweater and speaks softly.
“I always felt I didn’t need to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with children,” Rogers says.
To watch and absorb the bittersweet majesty of Won’t You Be My Neighbor is to realize what we’ve collectively lost as a society — our kindness, our compassion, our civility, our honesty. Hardened audiences of all ages so hopelessly addicted to spectacle and violence, including those way too young to remember Mister Rogers and his make-believe toy and puppet-populated neighborhood, are sure to melt to Fred Rogers’ effervescent charm, sincerity, and inspiration. This is a movie that deserves to be seen, not by the young so much as so-called adults who could sure use a lesson or two about how to behave in the world. Although the documentary focuses mostly on the period between 1966-2000, when the popular children’s program aired weekdays on PBS, it’s very much a movie for these times. It’s a frantic plea and a wake-up call, should we care to listen.
Here’s the official movie trailer:
Tied together with archival footage, interviews, outtakes, and behind-the-scenes footage of Rogers and his two families — one real, the other created inside a Pittsburgh television studio and just as real to the millions who came to love the hand-puppets, Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday — we recognize what an exception Fred Rogers was to the cultural “norms” of the day. He wrote all the scripts. He voiced most of the puppets. He starred as the central character. He even produced the show, which aired five days a week spanning three decades. Oh, and he also testified in front of Congress, and some insist, personally saved public television from being axed from the federal budget.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood defied all the conventional norms of creating a successful television show. Fred Rogers, the show’s mild-mannered host, never talked down to his target audience. Instead, he relied on the natural curiosities of children. He never used pranks nor slapstick. He rejected pressures to make his show more comedic. He also confronted major controversies on his program, which was unheard of in children’s programming.
For instance, Fred Rogers produced and aired a segment of Mister Rogers Neighborhood on the day right after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, in 1968. He used hand puppets to explain what “assassination” meant. Many children who might have caught wind of the assassination probably couldn’t make sense of it all. So, the national tragedy became a lesson and an opportunity for greater understanding.
Fred Rogers was also distraught over race relations in America. He watched the nightly news and saw Blacks kicked out of public swimming pools where White people swam. So, one hot day, he produced and aired a segment with his feet dipped into a pool of water, joined by the mailman also with his pants rolled up and feet in the water. The mailman happened to be Black. Watching White feet and Black feet together in a pail of water might not seem like a big deal nowadays, but kids who watched it in the late 1960’s sure got a message they probably weren’t learning at home, church, or school.
Fred Rogers was a strong advocate for the disabled. Over the years, he introduced children with disabilities and special needs to a mass audience, including some who were paralyzed in wheelchairs. The handicapped became engaged in spontaneous conversation with the host. Instead of treating the disabled with sadness and pity, he talked to them normally and showed how they were, at least on the inside, no different than the rest of us.
Fred Rogers was a tireless advocate for animal rights. He frequently brought animals — including turtles, cats, rabbits, and even a gorilla — directly onto the set. He showed how they too deserved a place on the earth. He treated animals with care and respect. Every show included at least a few seconds of Mister Rogers feeding his tank of fish, hence teaching responsibility to lots of kids who had a pet at home in need of daily care.
Mister Rogers became engulfed in his own controversies, as well. He was parodied by comedian Eddie Murphy in several blistering Saturday Night Live skits, who twisted his character into a pimp and drug dealer. He was mocked unmercifully by critics who considered him soft. In one of the most excruciating moments ever broadcast on live television, Fred Rogers was even asked flat out by interviewer Tom Snyder on NBC’s Tomorrow Show — “are you really straight?” You know, kindness and compassion being such a gay thing, and all. These moments appear in the documentary and they are cringeworthy.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is directed by Morgan Neville, who previously gave us two other documentary masterpieces — the highly-acclaimed Oscar winner 20 Feet from Stardom about the lives of backup singers, and Best of Enemies, about the odd relationship between political antagonists William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal.
Director Deville could have deified Fred Rogers, and most of us would have been perfectly fine with that. However, the documentary is at its tearful best when we witness our superhero expressing his self-doubts. He wonders if he made a difference. Fred Rogers gradually comes to realize that he’s swimming against an overwhelming tide of sludge, struggling to move the needle against overwhelming odds. Indeed, looking back now, many of Fred Rogers’ teachings and tactics appear to have been a lost cause, especially in the darkness of what we’ve become — a culture obsessed with violence, greed, and fame. In the end, Fred Rogers and his ideas didn’t triumph. After he left, there went the neighborhood.
I teared up several times during Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and expect you will, too.
Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, had his critics and they were many, and they were vocal. To this day, some conservatives openly castigate his methodology and guiding philosophy of compassion, insisting the byproduct of Mister Rogers Neighborhood is an entire generation of children now jaded by a sense of entitlement. They use the argument that not all children are special. Why give the smaller, athletically clumsy kid a trophy? He didn’t earn it.
Regretfully, right now, it’s not “a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” despite the familiar melody of Fred Rogers’ joyous optimism.
That more than anything else is precisely why Won’t You Be My Neighbor deserves to be seen.
Note: A movie on Fred Rogers’ life is currently in production. Tom Hanks will play the title role.