Where did you go Fred Rogers? That’s the big question raised by Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the endlessly appealing and beautiful documentary on the life of a true American treasure.
Now that I’m in my mid-40s, I’ve lost count on the former heroes whose legacies have been tarnished by scandals. It’s immensely refreshing to watch a film about a childhood fixture who was an even better person than I realized.
From all accounts, from friends, co-workers, children and his wife, Joanne, Fred Rogers was better than advertised. An aspiring minister who one day happened to catch a TV show, Rogers decided he would complete seminary school later. He had another calling — producing a show for children.
Director Morgan Neville breaks down Rogers’ early days with his first TV effort, which eventually evolved into the staple of many American homes – Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
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With access to a score of interviews with Rogers, Neville is able to tell a comprehensive story with accounts from the man himself. Based on the interviews with cast mates and production crew members, Neville wasn’t lacking for people willing to share stories about Rogers’ impact on their lives.
Rogers didn’t need a big booming voice or towering physical presence to make his point. He never deviated from his message of loving others preaching a message of tolerance without a pulpit. Neville shows a news reel of a racist hotel owner putting bleach in his swimming pool while black patrons swam with white patrons. He follows that up with footage from a show where Rogers shares a wading pool with the show’s black character.
There’s no shortage of touching footage of Rogers continually showing his decency. It’s inspiring and uplifting to see such a gentle soul making such a powerful impact.
Ariel Costa and Rodrigo Miguel Rangel provide some wonderful animated framing sequences featuring Rogers’ main character Daniel the Tiger.
Neville offers a well-rounded account of Rogers. He’s not putting Rogers up for sainthood and doesn’t paint a picture of the perfect man. In a respectful way, Neville portrays Rogers’ defiance to conforming and his outrage over TV’s attack on children and common decency. It’s telling that it felt ludicrous that someone would be so worked up about what children are exposed to, but was Rogers really off-base?
With the modern lens of cynicism and skepticism, Neville directly addresses speculation on Rogers’ sexuality. One of the best stories in the film centers around François S. Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show. As a closeted gay man, Clemmons felt a responsibility not to bring any scandal to the show as its featured black performer. Clemmons shared the struggle of being a gay man during that time period and how much Rogers’ acceptance meant.
Neville also doesn’t try to sell an illusion that Rogers never struggled with doubt and despair. As illustrated in another segment, Rogers didn’t consider himself a superhero and questioned if he really was making a difference.
Given the current state of the world, the film’s final act almost takes a depressing turn. What song could Mister Rogers play that would make sense of the unmitigated hate, division and social media outrage? Maybe none, but Neville still manages to end the film on an emotional note. This documentary doesn’t even have to try that hard to make you choke up fighting back the tears.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a touching reminder of the power of one man willing to show his love.
Rating: 10 out of 10
Photo Credit: Focus Features