Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Directed by Morgan Neville
Starring: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Betty Aberlin, David Bianculli
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language
1 hr. 34 min.
Data and analytics predominate these times. If numbers alone tell us anything, much can be gleaned from the fact that a documentary about the most benign entity in TV history has been Top 10 nationally at the box office. That entity, the late Fred Rogers; the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Morgan Neville’s warm, engaging study of Mr. Rogers and his impact on popular culture and generations of children is illuminating, touching and, like the man himself, so thoroughly decent.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers entered TV in its early years, when entertainment for children meant that baggy-pants comedians such as Pinky Lee and slapstick pie-throwers à la Soupy Sales prevailed — as did commercials and product placement that lured in kids. (I recall that even the genteel Captain Kangaroo had a train set that circled an array of Kellogg’s cereal boxes . . . “The best to you each morning!”) Mr. Rogers deeply believed that children deserved more from television, and in 1968 began his daily series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, on Pittsburgh’s WQED.
I saw the show at its outset, as a 9-year-old, rapidly spinning the soft, UHF channel selector until the fuzzy picture displayed what looked like a toy Christmas village, sans the wreaths and ribbons, and the ringing celesta theme began. The dapper Mr. Rogers entered, singing his soon-to-be-signature song, with a lavalier microphone, thick as a roll of pennies, hanging over his narrow tie. And there was the trolley, which I wanted for my own room just to watch it make its way around the walls.
For younger children, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was much more than the scant production values because Rogers’ goal was to make them know that they were special and loved. To watch this documentary on a big screen is to set aside what disdain for corniness may exist and see the greatness of his sincerity.
It seemed as though providence had determined that this series would start when it was needed most. 1968 was a year of violence and pain. Mr. Rogers was so concerned that he aired a special episode and urged parents to talk with their children about what they were seeing on TV. He did this over the years, through travail and tragedy. Rogers didn’t see himself as such, for his mission was so much more than that, but he may have been television’s best au pair, a guardian who made children, at least for a half-hour every weekday, feel valued.
Neville’s film touches on what made Rogers so intent on helping kids achieve a positive sense of self. A child from a well-off family, he was teased as “Fat Freddy.” As ostracized children often do, he retreated to a world of his own invention. From this experience came his faith — decidedly more about living the word than fire and brimstone. What grew was more vocation than career. He desired to make TV a chance to build community.
Mr. Rogers drew his share of parodies, which are shown in the film: Eddie Murphy, SCTV, Johnny Carson. He was an easy target. Toward the end of his life, he was in the crosshairs of Fox News and far-right extremists for “creating a generation of entitled children.” Fred Rogers, a gentle soul and deeply spiritual man, a comforting presence, did not deserve that.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is in its final weeks of theatrical release. Should you seek relief from both the heat and the violence of the summer blockbuster movies, see this film. Consider the influence of Fred Rogers, and ponder how he would handle today’s resurrected hatreds and national bellicosity. You’ll find his message would be the same. We need only hear it.