Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired for 30 years on PBS. Because of this extraordinary long run, we see many different versions of the show in the new documentary examining the life of its creator and star, Fred Rogers. The sets change, the video quality changes, we see versions in both color and black and white. Mr. Rogers also changes. We see him as a young man, an old man, and somewhere in between.
While watching the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I had an exuberant emotional response when I saw my version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood appear on the screen for the first time. I’m guessing most other audience members will have the same response, but at a different point in the show’s evolution, depending on when you watched it. For me, it was the early to mid-1980s. Mr. Rogers had a healthy dose of gray mixed with his dark hair; he was middle-aged on the cusp of becoming an old man. The quality of the show was the soft, warm analog fuzziness that comes with shooting things on video tape instead of film.
The flood of memories and emotions that overwhelmed me in the first few seconds I saw that version in Neighbor is a feeling that Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville achieves throughout his documentary. Fred Rogers was more than a neighbor to kids. He was a friend and a father figure, and most importantly, he loved every kid he interacted with – either in person or through the magic of television – for who they were.
At the same time, Neville’s documentary is much more ambitious than crafting a paean to an iconic figure of children’s educational programming. Through interviews with friends and family, and archival footage of its subject, the film reveals a multifaceted portrait of Fred Rogers. It’s one that is tinged with melancholy and self-doubt. The qualities you would expect to see examined in a documentary about Mr. Rogers, things like joy and quiet contemplation, are there, but they are mixed in equal measure with righteous indignation about the state of children’s programming. He hated the medium to which he dedicated his life, because he saw virtually no other content that shared the values that he thought were so important.
As of this writing, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has only been in wide release for two days, and it already feels trite to make the point that the message Fred Rogers delivered is more relevant in today’s world than ever before. There are probably 100 other critics who have written about Rogers’ – and Neighbor’s – vociferous calls for empathy, compassion, and love being the qualities we need most while also being the ones in shortest supply. I’ll gladly be the 101st to reiterate these ideas, because they are true and salient.
The documentary itself is deft at drawing attention to Rogers’ message. There are many instances where the film uses clips of him stating it outright. “You don’t have to do anything special to be loved,” was his core ethos, after all, and he emphasized it as often, and in as many ways, as possible. Neighbor is slyer in how it draws a circle around current issues by looking at how Rogers dealt with similar problems in the past.
The film never mentions our current cultural shame of demonizing and othering groups of people who don’t conform to narrow ideas of what an “American” looks like – immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular – but Rogers dealt with similar sentiments decades earlier. At a time when white people poured noxious cleaning chemicals in public pools to defend segregation when black people dared to integrate them, the white children’s show host invited a black man to wash off his feet with him in a kiddie pool.
I must admit that I don’t really remember any huge social messages from my days of watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. When I think back on the program, I remember things like Mr. Rogers taking a tour of a factory that made Crayons. I’d like to believe that they were subtle enough to have seeped in on a subconscious level. They were certainly there, because Neville includes copious amounts of archival footage of Rogers dealing with very adult issues, but tailored for preschoolers.
He explained what assassination was after the death of Bobby Kennedy. He talked to kids about what parents go through when they decide to get divorced. Again, without the documentary ever having to say it outright, these clips belie the arguments that adults make about wanting to ignore complex issues because “it’s just too hard to explain these kinds of things to my child.” Mr. Rogers proved that with enough love and patience, a child is capable of learning anything.
The film also reveals the tension within Fred Rogers between his mission to instill in every child a sense of being loved just for who they are, and his own feelings of self-doubt. We learn of the uncertainties he had about his own creative abilities. Because of his upbringing and despite his middle name – a tribute to his mother’s maiden name – McFeely, Rogers often felt the need to repress his feelings. Eventually he channeled the most vulnerable sides of himself through one of his characters, the puppet Daniel Tiger.
He wrote and performed a song as Daniel titled Sometimes I Wonder If I’m a Mistake. It’s a duet, and we get to see how the ultimate message for the audience is just because you feel like a mistake, that doesn’t mean you are one. Those who love you accept you for who you are. Still, the film frames this song as a confession coming from its subject. Moments like these are the most revelatory about Fred Rogers.
In our oversaturated media world, kids are bombarded with entertainment meant more often to distract and hyper-stimulate than teach or nourish. Mr. Rogers loved silence, which was a radical thing in a noisy television landscape. At the end of the film, Neville asks his interview subjects to do something Rogers often asked kids to do. He asked them to sit in silence for two minutes and think about someone who inspired them or who helped them in some way. To a person, every one of them smiles while doing so. It shows that love has the power to alter any situation for the better.
One interviewee comments during the movie that there doesn’t seem to be any room anymore for a nice person on television. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes it abundantly clear that we need to make room for such people. It’s a nuanced, beautiful tribute to Fred Rogers, who was more than just a nice person. He was a man who believed in the transformative ability of love and empathy.
Why it got 4 stars:
- In its best moments, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a soaring celebration of its subject. It doesn't challenge the documentary form in any earth-shattering way, but it is intelligent filmmaking with a heart the size of Texas. It will lift your spirits, if you let it.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Here are some stray observations I really like that the film makes early: 1) A low budget doesn't matter (at least as much) if what an artist is saying is important and has real meaning. 2) Rogers was so effective because, as his son says, he never forgot what it was like to be 5 or 6 years old. I wish we could all be like that.
- Fred Rogers was a life-long Republican and practiced what someone in the movie calls a "wide open Christianity." I think the values he espoused that came from both of those camps are dead now. Neither Republicanism nor Christianity, as they are practiced today (with the usual exceptions that prove the rule), have even the faintest resemblance to what he believed.
- There is a clip towards the end of Neighbor that shows the hosts of Fox & Friends attacking Fred Rogers for creating an entire generation of people who "don't want to work for anything," because he told them they deserved to be loved without question. Their claim is so fatuous as to be laughable, yet people buy that kind of argument without question. Please do me a favor, if you are ever watching or listening to a program that creates content out of making unsustainable, unverifiable claims that exist only to be provocative, run – don't walk – away from it. That goes for content from the left as well as the right.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Standing in the hallway of the movie theater, you could definitely tell who had just walked out of the Neighbor screening. It was all the people with puffy eyes and the sniffles. It was a moving experience with spontaneous bursts of applause at the end.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- A few years ago, we got a gender-swap reboot of the classic comedy Ghostbusters. Now, it's Danny Ocean and his gang that are getting the reboot treatment with Ocean's 8, an all-female take on Steven Soderbergh's 2001 heist film, Ocean's Eleven, which was in turn a remake of a 1960 movie of the same name. I have reservations. The fact that Sandra Bullock's character, Debbie Ocean, is Danny's sister, and also happens to be a world class thief possibly hints at lazy writing. I've heard good things, though, and I'm looking forward to having a good time.