Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
by Hope Madden
The world did not deserve Fred Rogers.
A loving and tender soul if ever there was one, Fred Rogers saw children not as future consumers, but as vulnerable human beings who needed to know they had value.
Directed by documentarian Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for his 2013 doc 20 Feet from Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? trollies into the life of the children’s TV host. What you’ll learn is that, yes, Mr. Rogers was really like that.
What might surprise you, though, is how brave he was in representing the themes and conflicts of current events in the neighborhood. It seems everybody missed that—perhaps because of his gentle delivery, or maybe adults just couldn’t see past the puppets to notice. Rogers wasn’t out to be controversial. But when horrifying images from the Vietnam War, assassinations or terrorism splashed across TV screens, Rogers understood that this would frighten children, and they would need ways to cope that would not likely be there. So he did it himself.
The parallels to today are hard to miss, as is the current need for Rogers’s sincerity and idealism.
Neville mines ample archival reels from programs, interviews and home movies and offsets them nicely with talking head footage. The family exposes a man who struggled at times with exactly the kinds of insecurities and fears he addressed head-on for children on his show: fear of being a fraud, the need to be loved.
Neville’s film does not canonize the man. We see how uncomfortable he was with his SNL-style imitators and how infuriating he found trashy children’s programming.
Meanwhile, experts position him among the great child educators and colleagues see him as a fearless and savvy manipulator of the medium. An ordained pastor, Rogers also utilized his time with children to preach by example.
In one episode, Rogers is cooling himself on a hot day by bathing his feet. A visit from Officer Clemons, an African American character played by Francois Clemmons, prompts Fred to ask him to join. The two men sit blandly enough, side by side, their bare feet chilling in a plastic pool.
At that same time – as Neville points out with news footage – children may also have witnessed a different image on their TV screens: one of a public pool manager tossing bleach into the water to bully a black family into leaving the grounds.
Fred Rogers looked out for children, understanding what frightened us and making every attempt to help us through those “difficult modulations.” It’s tough to make it through the film’s 94 minutes without tearing up, and that’s not entirely from sentimentality. It’s from wondering whether today’s world is simply too cruel and cynical for Mr. Rogers.