"Won't You Be My Neighbor" Film Review
As a nineties kid, I was fortunate to be part of the last generation that was Fred Rogers’ television neighbor. I remember my mom turning on PBS in the morning well before I learned how to read. I used to holler at her to come into the room at the start of every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to recite the title at the beginning. When my sister was born, she became a part of this daily ritual too.
Now, as a twenty-something year-old millennial, I find myself taking for granted this element of my childhood. But as hard for me to believe as it is, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood has been off the air for ten years now. The world has changed massively over that time. Children and teenagers now have YouTube and Instagram and Snapchat neighbors, and while there is some fantastic educational and inspirational content on internet platforms, social media in general is a very complex place filled with extremes of joy and hate, and the iGeneration has lacked the tools to navigate this world.
It’s in this divisive and emotionally charged climate, that filmmaker Morgan Neville has released his biographical documentary on the life and career of Fred Rogers. "Won’t You Be My Neighbor" is a candid and honest look at the man behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a staple of public television for over 30 years that produced its final episode in 2001.
Throughout this beautifully constructed film are woven profound insights from Fred Rogers into the psychology of emotion, love, loss, and relationships. These exist amid a concise and informative narration of the progression of his career, and intimate insights into the icon off camera by close friends and family members.
"Won’t You Be My Neighbor" highlights some of the most subversive moments in Mister Rogers career, including featuring African-American François Clemmons on his show as a police officer at the height of the civil rights movement, and cooling off his feet with him in a pool as a statement against segregation in public spaces.
The film also dives deeply into the connection between Mister Rogers and his audience. An ordained minister, Fred Rogers studied early child development with leading psychologists. His work on Mister Rogers Neighborhood was a combination of religious duty and cutting edge behavioral science. He did not seek to talk down to children, but rather have candid conversations with them about their feelings.
Over the course of the show, Mister Rogers covered topics such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Challenger disaster, and the Cold War. He talked to his young audience about death, divorce, and depression. After he retired from production, Mister Rogers was brought back by PBS to talk to viewers about September 11th.
Additionally, the film underscored the incredible impact Fred Rogers has had on shaping the television landscape. Mister Rogers went before the US Congress twice to defend public television. First to secure $20 million of funding that allowed it to survive, and then to stave off a law that would make recording television on VCRs a crime. He frequently spoke about the need for quality content on television that would enrich people’s lives, especially the pliable minds of children.
Despite the general feel-good, inspirational quality of "Won’t You Be My Neighbor", Morgan Neville boldly did not shy away from any controversy and struggle in Fred Rogers life. The film brought up the fact that Mister Rogers was not comfortable with cast member François Clemmons’ homosexualiy. Neville included common criticisms of Mister Rogers’ rhetoric that each and everyone is special, and the connection that some commentators have drawn between his positively reinforcing language and laziness and entitlement. The film also drew attention to the self-doubt that Fred Rogers struggled with in his own abilities to communicate and produce quality programming.
Emotionally poignant and surprisingly relevant to today’s political and social climate, "Won’t You Be My Neighbor" is a masterful piece of cinema. Its pacing is enthralling, as its content is informative and challenging. I walked out of the theater feeling that the world needs the message of Mister Rogers more than ever, and an expression of deep gratitude that he was my neighbor.