Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a surprisingly honest portrait of a man with a singular vision, and one with a message that should resonate with people of all ages, races, or creeds, regardless of whether or not they grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neigborhood.
I’ll admit it. I was never a huge Mister Rogers guy. When I grew up in the 80s, my PBS educational children’s show of choice was Sesame Street. I certainly enjoyed and appreciated Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but I didn’t grow up with all those warm, fuzzy memories of the show that many others in my generation did. I’ve always admired and tried to expound his belief in showing love, compassion, and understanding for everyone around you, but I’ve just never been one of those people that held Fred Rogers on a pedestal akin to cultural icons like Ghandi, as others do.
With that in mind, I entered Won’t You Be My Neighbor? with an open mind, but devoid of any real expectations.
And I was blown away…
The documentary opens with an intimate look at the man, behind the scenes. He’s playing a piano and trying to capture his thoughts on-camera, only to stop himself because he’s not sure his words are as effective as they could be in this particular take. Right away, we’re shown what a vulnerable man Rogers was, filled with the same kind of self-doubt that plagues everyone else.
That’s indicative of the entire film, as director Morgan Neville and the assortment of people he brought on to discuss this iconic figure’s legacy really discuss the INs and OUTs of what made him tick. And the film rarely shies away from tackling controversial topics, such as the rumors that he was a closeted homosexual (and his views on being gay in public) and the cultural backlash against his mantra of “Everyone is special” that came to be in the last 15 years or so- inferring that it gave way to a generation of spoiled people who expect all the good things in life to be handed to them. They address it all but, similar to the man himself, they do so in a way that’s compassionate and free of pretense.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t attempt to be an exhaustive study of Fred Rogers from birth to death, choosing instead to focus on his years in public life. That doesn’t mean that we don’t get glimpses of his childhood and later years as he wrestled with his legacy. We’re given enough information to understand why he felt the way he did, and why he preached his message of love as fervently as he did, without having to learn every bit of minutiae about his life.
That’s not to say there aren’t some revealing surprises about the way he lived his life. Indeed, you’ll learn some extremely unique and eccentric bits of trivia about the man affectionately known simply as Mister Rogers. (And no, it’s not true that he was a hardboiled killer who served in the marines.)
What really gripped me while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was the sincerity and rawness of his mission. It’s really a rare and beautiful thing to see someone unwilling to compromise as they preach a message of love and understanding, aimed both at children and the adults responsible for them. Through his interactions with everyone from vulnerable, innocent kids to legendary artists like Yo-Yo Ma, and even Koko the gorilla, it’s hard not to feel your heart swell as he communicates love and acceptance so effortlessly.
And there’s a seriousness at work here, too, as the documentary anchors its three acts with seminal moments in American history and how Rogers did his best to speak to a hurting nation about how to deal with our complicated emotions during these harrowing times. From the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 straight through to September 11, 2001, Rogers was right there with a nation waiting to hear how he’d try to mend our broken hearts.
I defy you to watch the footage of him standing up for PBS- and, by extension, the idea of creating a safe, educational place for children- at a court hearing in 1969 and not feel overcome with emotion at how he disarms Senator John Pastore and the Senate Committee on Commerce Subcommittee on Communications with his humble plea to not cut funding for the network.
He was a true superhero.
At the end of it all, you walk away with the feeling that there really was something mythic about Fred Rogers. As eccentric and singular in his vision as he was, it’s hard not to feel like he was cut from the same cloth as other cultural icons who dedicated their lives to the greater good. Because his message, ultimately, was not that we’re all entitled to get whatever we want out of life; No. His message was that none of us has to do something extraordinary to be loved and appreciated for who we intrinsically are. How amazing would it be if we all had people in our corners, who reminded us that, “I love you just the way you are“? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone felt this?
For 94 minutes while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? my world was a better place. Now if I could just carry those teachings into my every day life…
Thank, Mister Rogers.