By: Steve Pulaski
The critically acclaimed documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? paints Fred Rogers in a manner not too dissimilar from a teacher and the way most of us used to view them. I don't know about you, but when I was around seven or eight years old, I was a bit shocked to learn teachers didn't live at school and in fact had private lives and their first names weren't "Mr." or "Mrs." It's the same sort of subtle surprise I had learning about Mr. Rogers' insecurities, anxieties, and personal struggles in being both good and morally good on public television and in the company of children and adults who looked to him for guidance in times of tragedy.
If you have any interest in seeing Won't You Be My Neighbor?, you likely don't need my confirmation, as you've probably already heard what millions have been saying. And yet, it bears repeating: this is a wonderful, affectionate film as softspoken as the man it profiles over the course of 93 minutes. It's equal parts compelling on the level of humanizing an iconic individual as well as an informational character study, not stopping at the universally recognizable aspects of Mr. Rogers' life. Because of the latter, documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) produces a film that goes beyond well-intentioned and into guiding territory that would kindly serve anyone of any age and background. It's the rare instance where I'd recommend a film to everyone seeking something worth their time.
Fred Rogers emerged from an affluent family, and worked diligently to become an ordained minister until he became acquainted with the medium of television in the late 1960s. He was disappointed that such a promising medium brought about what he felt was the lowest common denominator of entertainment, an opinion he held even while working in television. He began his career on the then-rising Pittsburgh-based network WQED on a program known as The Children's Corner. Although burdened by incredibly low production values and a reliance on slapstick comedy, Mr. Rogers took what he learned from that program and created what would become Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which I believe needs no introduction.
In retaliation to the copious amounts of programs aimed at kids that were just as much noisy toy commercials as they were daytime entertainment, Mr. Rogers maintained his convictions that he didn't need to don a funny hat or engage in ridiculous, pandering behavior in order to relate to kids. It's that reason and more why we loved him. He didn't insult our intelligence, and he was bold and brave enough to address the world around us when it got too scary. Small things such as one of his fish in his signature fish-tank passing away led to a meditation on death and larger international events such as the Cold War prompted a week-long "Conflict" series that worked to demystify wars for young children. Even as an adult, there's something spine-chilling about Daniel Striped Tiger asking "what is an assassination?" in the wake of John F. Kennedy's murder.
Speaking of one of the most integral characters to the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe," several people, including Joanne Rogers, Fred's widow, spend a considerable amount of time looking at Mr. Rogers' relationship with the character, who is now known to kids as an animated tiger with his own PBS program. Mr. Rogers and Daniel Tiger were "symbiotic," some say, for Daniel served as the childlike buffer for Mr. Rogers, as his character was always a bit fragile and timid especially when faced with world around him. In one of the film's many tear-jerking moments, Daniel asks Lady Aberlin if he was a mistake, for he isn't like anyone else, which prompts the two to harmonize a duet that will crush anyone who has ever seriously doubted themselves and their abilities. Daniel Tiger vocalized Mr. Rogers' own personal fears, as if in addition to providing children a calming environment in which to immerse themselves, Mr. Rogers was also giving himself an outlet at the same time.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? is chock full of extremely memorable and noteworthy moments such as that one. Musician François Clemmons, who played the recurring character "Officer Clemmons" on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, discusses what it was like being a black man not only playing a police officer on TV, but being welcomed into television, what was known as a white space during the 1960s and 1970s. Clemmons wasn't a caricature on the program, and when Mr. Rogers invited him to soak his feet with him in his kiddie pool it was an impressive political statement of acceptance and embracing your neighbor regardless of skin color. Also examined is President Richard Nixon's attack on public television, which was taking precious dollars away from the Vietnam War in his mind. Mr. Rogers, of all individuals, noticeably nervous and tasked with a challenging order, successfully convinced the impatient and unruly Senator John Pastore to grant PBS an additional $20 million in funding. You couldn't make that kind of detail up, so thankfully, YouTube has done a great job preserving the six-minute courtroom exchange.
Still, I believe the most crucial detail in the documentary is the fear of being inadequate, unfit, or falling short Mr. Rogers held for most of his career. Consider the daunting, ostensibly impossible task of trying to communicate with children as individuals with a medium as broad as television, let alone compounding that goal by teaching them vital life-lessons, such as grief, handling anger, companionship, friendship, and more. Neville makes Fred Rogers come through as much or more than Mr. Rogers and that's no easy feat.
Even in the age of internet shock value and relentless obsessions with embarrassing or "cringeworthy" content, Mr. Rogers' program and legacy has aged remarkably well. I remember choosing Mister Rogers' Neighborhood over Arthur and Spongebob Squarepants as the show I'd watch before the school bus came, and I knew several other kids my age who would've made the same choice. His avuncular, fatherly cadence was something you couldn't fake, and Mr. Rogers knew how to talk to us all like we were children in a way that wasn't patronizing nor condescending. It's this reason and more, some of which quite possibly impossible to articulate, that there wasn't a dry eye in my theater after watching this documentary, my own included. Maybe once a year, if we're lucky, a film comes along and reminds you that you're human as it makes you reflect on and even produce deeply human emotions. This is one of those films.