There are two things that WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018), Morgan Neville’s documentary on TV’s Fred Rogers, does well above all else.
It validates Rogers’ work during his thirty plus years on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, revealing him as more than just a kind and gentle host of a children’s TV show. His mission had a far deeper purpose.
And it delivers his ongoing message to today’s society, which is in desperate need to hear it and learn from it.
Fred Rogers, of course, was popularly known as Mister Rogers because of his time hosting Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the iconic PBS children’s television show which ran from 1968-2001. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? chronicles how that show began and follows Rogers on his lifelong mission to connect with and care for young children.
Rogers went to school to become a minister but was both so intrigued by the new medium of television and disgusted by it in that it provided little to no proper programming for children, that he decided to put his ministry plans on hold and start his own TV show for kids. That show eventually became Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And Rogers eventually became an ordained minister. Although he did not wear a collar, he would work as a minister his whole life, reaching out to children, spreading his message of love and acceptance during every episode of his show.
It wasn’t quite known how effectively Rogers was connecting to children until one day early on when WGBH in Boston invited Rogers to make a live appearance, and the line of children waiting to see him stretched outside around the building for blocks. From that time forward, Rogers became a mainstay on Children’s Public Television.
It almost didn’t happen, as the Nixon administration planned to dramatically cut funding for public television, and in one of the film’s more dramatic moments, we see Rogers testifying before Congress, where his powerful statement actually earns them the funding right there on the spot.
The movie also chronicles how bold Rogers was, as he was not afraid to cover controversial topics. He saw it as his mission to reach children and be there as the person who could explain these confusing and potentially upsetting things to them. The film shows clips from episodes on assassination following the Robert Kennedy assassination, on disasters after the Challenger explosion, and on divorce and death.
And with a regular character who was black, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood also consistently delivered a message on positive race relations.
But this was just a small part of what Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was all about. Rogers saw it as his mission to be an advocate for children and for his show to be that safe place where they could learn about life, and where they could be heard. Rogers speaks of the importance of listening, and also of quiet, and we see many of the quiet peaceful moments of his show juxtaposed with the loud, insane moments of other children’s’ shows and cartoons. As one interviewee said, “there were plenty of quiet moments on the show but no empty ones.”
And that’s one of the things that this documentary does the best. It makes clear that Rogers had a mission and a purpose, and that during the years his show ran, the mission was successful.
Yet the film shows Rogers lamenting near the end of his life that he feared that people still didn’t get his show and what he was all about, that he was seen as just an oddball Pollyanna character who talked slowly to children.
And he felt this way partly because of the backlash fueled by Fox News in the early 2000s where some claimed that Rogers actually harmed children by telling them they were special, because this kind of talk led to children growing up feeling entitled and becoming whiny adults. Rogers also faced protests from groups who felt offended by his acceptance of gays. These attacks by the political right were rather ironic since Rogers was both a Republican and an ordained minister.
It’s this part of the film that connects successfully to today, as here in 2018 we live in a time of massive political divisions and hatred, fueled by partisan fighting and ever-more-violent rhetoric. Rogers no doubt would be appalled to see what is going on today. He also no doubt would have been putting together his show to help children understand what is going on and help them be able to deal with it.
Director Morgan Neville has created a deep and resonating documentary with WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? It’s not a superficial anecdotal film, where we learn why he wore a sweater, or why he changed his shoes. It’s about the man and his mission to reach as many children as possible and to tell them they are loved.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? makes it clear that Fred Rogers was a remarkable and special individual, and when he passed away on February 27, 2003 at the age of 74, the world lost one of its staunchest child advocates, and children lost a treasured and dear friend. Indeed, the centerpiece of his show was his simple message that all children were loved, and everyone was special, that one didn’t have to do anything remarkable to be special. We are all born that way.
You make each day a special day. You know how, by just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And people can like you exactly as you are. —Fred Rogers.