Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville’s latest documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes an intimate look at America’s favorite neighbor: Mister Fred Rogers. A portrait of a man whom we all think we know, this documentary is an emotional and moving film that takes you beyond zip-up cardigans and the land of make-believe, and into the heart of a creative genius, who inspired generations of children with compassion and limitless imagination.
What We Thought:
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is delightful, dark, moving, sad, educational, and inspiring. We need a Mister Rogers now more than ever.
I grew up on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. I remember it and Sesame Street being shows I was allowed to watch on TV. This was long before Barney, Dora and the other awful shows that were used to babysit more than educate. Fred Rogers was a calming, soft-spoken man who didn’t talk down to children, but also didn’t treat them like adults like we do in today’s world. He and the show were wholesome, entertaining and educational.
This documentary gives you an inside look at the actual Fred Rogers, his early start in Pittsburgh, keeping PBS alive from government budget cuts, the rise of the show and his cult stardom and much more. For a generation or two that grew up with the cardigan wearing Mister Rogers, it’s a must see.
I actually learned quite a bit about the man and the show. He was aiming to live a life of religion before seeing television for the first time. He thought it could be a vessel of education for children and he practically accomplished that himself. Beyond the puppets and the Land of Make Believe, he did a lot of appearances and worked with children outside of the show. He was simply a good man who cared about children.
The show got started in the late 1960s and immediately was a hit, but what this film shows you is, all the characters that Mister Rogers voiced and wore on his hand were really hints at the man himself. He grew up a sick boy who had nothing but his imagination to keep him company in bed. All his puppets relayed his issues to an audience who could relate. It’s a pretty basic concept of providing kids with content suitable for kids, but we just don’t do that nowadays. He had doubts and issues that many of his fans struggled with and he became the person we could turn to.
Despite being a devout Christian and Republican, Rogers was what he preached, an open man. He had an African-American actor on his show pretty much from the start. He spoke about tolerance and acceptance because he lived that way himself. One of the actors was gay, Fred had no issue with that and the man loved him for it. In today’s cynically jaded world, people would want to pick him apart and not buy into his act, but according to co-workers, crew, family and friends, it was no act. He was as genuine as he looked.
What shocked me was the old footage of the show and the messages it had. As a kid, you don’t realize you are hearing heavy stuff because of how he handled it. As an adult, it’s mind-blowing that he took on the death of Bobby Kennedy by using a puppet to ask what assassination means. Yeah, a hand puppet used that word in the 1960s! From racial tension to the Challenger explosion, he tackled them all, taught us a lesson and we were none the wiser.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a great reminder of childhood for certain generations. It’s an inside look at a layered man who just wanted to make the world better. We could certainly use more people like Fred Rogers nowadays.