As with so many children, when I was young I watched “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Who doesn’t remember him putting on his sweater and changing his shoes as he came in at the start of every episode. I was always a little confused by the sweater and shoes thing (why not just take off the shoes and go around in socks), but I accepted it, just as I accepted the trolley taking us from the real world into the Land of Make-Believe.
Although I don’t know precisely when it happened, I also remember eventually having the feeling that the show was a little silly. I wouldn’t have put it into such terms, but I felt like there was something hokey about its earnestness. After watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the new documentary from Morgan Neville, I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to believe just a little while longer.
Loosely tracing the history of the series and, to a lesser extent, Fred Rogers himself, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a 90+ minute examination of Rogers’ beliefs and how those beliefs translated into the creation and run of the series. It isn’t always a deep as it might be, and there are definitely some things which it shies away from discussing, but it is still a successful, wistful, remembrance of one man and the good he tried to do.
Over the course of the film we hear from Rogers’ family as well as those who worked on the show. They, quite successfully, illustrate the importance of Rogers’ belief that children should be dealt with as real people, that they need not be talked down to, that they should be shown respect, and how that belief influenced his everything about the show.
One of the more interesting things about the documentary is that while it gives the briefest of flavors of Rogers’ family and contains interviews with them, it does not delve deeply into his personal life. In fact, the Wikipedia page on the man may offer more details than the film.
Perhaps it is this shying away from the personal story of Rogers that leads to one of the more awkward moments in the film. In this sequence, François Clemmons, who acted on the show, discusses how at one point Rogers told Clemmons not to again attend a gay bar, with the idea that Clemmons’ doing so could damage the show. It seems as though Rogers, personally, had no issues with Clemmons being gay, and certainly Clemmons is shown to have continued on the show after the moment and to greatly respect Rogers to this day, but the documentary doesn’t explore any of this. It puts it out there and then moves on to something else.
The movie may continue forward, but the moment lingers with the audience. It makes one wonder how Rogers himself truly felt about it. Again, inferences can be drawn from Clemmons’ discussion of Rogers in the movie, but it isn’t enough to wipe away the awkwardness. In fact, Clemmons’ very presence allows one to push past it and to get back to the film itself and it’s message of how Rogers went about educating and empowering children.
The message of empowerment comes across quite clearly in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.” Despite the documentary showing talking heads on news programs questioning whether Rogers went too far by telling children they were all worthwhile human beings, it also makes it obvious that those people are exhibiting a willful misunderstanding. The message imparted by the series is not that you are special and don’t have to do anything with your life because of that, it’s that you are special and have value just by being you.
More than anything, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is the story of a show that perhaps was always a little anachronistic, but intentionally so. It is the story of a man who thought he could help children and their families navigate the world and grow up feeling their own self-worth. It is a touching piece and one that is sure to have you walk out of the experience with the sense that it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive, and that Fred Rogers made it his life’s mission to give that to as many people as he could.
photo credit: Focus Features