Title: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Director: Morgan Neville
Production Company: Tremolo Productions
I was born into the first generation of children who got to know the friendly, calm, and soothing presence of Mister Rogers through our television sets. As a teenager, I grew to find the show cheezy and a bit trippy. As an adult, I learned more and more that Fred Rogers was one of the most genuinely good and kind human beings ever to grace the earth. This documentary reinforces that notion (in case you were worried that this is a “tell-all” documentary that would expose Mister Rogers’ dark side, it can’t because it doesn’t exist) by showing that the Mister Rogers we saw on tv was an authentic expression of the man himself.
The documentary only touches upon Rogers’ personal life, with hints of his childhood explored through dreamlike animated segments featuring his alter ego Daniel Striped Tiger. The bulk of the movie is interviews with Rogers’ family and work colleagues and lots of spectacular archival film. We see clips from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” behind the scenes footage, public appearances, and interviews.
Through the interviews Rogers narrates his own story. He explains how he was called to use the new medium of television to minister to children (which he did for more than 30 years without ever mentioning God or Jesus). One interviewee notes regarding his ministry, “He didn’t wear a collar he wore a sweater.” Rogers himself discusses the “holy ground between the tv and someone receiving it.” One of his sons notes that it was “Tough for me to have the second Christ as a dad.” He also talks about the influence of child psychologist Margaret McFarland on his work as well as other leaders in child development of the era such as Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton.
The history of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” shows how from the very beginning he addressed children directly on dealing with difficult subjects. The very first week of the show talked about war by showing King Friday building a wall around his kingdom to keep people out (UM, THAT’S A LITTLE BIT TOO ON POINT!). A few months later he created a special episode for children and their parents to deal with the assassination of Robert Kennedy. When segregationists poured acid into a swimming pool where black people were swimming, Rogers responded with a segment showing him soaking his feet in a wading pool with François Clemens. By the 1980s the show would spend an entire week on topics such as divorce, bullying, and death. In one episode he finds that one of his fish has died and shows him gently removing the fish, wrapping it, and burying it in the yard behind his tv home.
In the real world, Rogers testified before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in favor of funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and through his gentle but persuasive explanation, encouraged tough guy Senator John Pastore to award the funding. The film also shows the parodies of Mister Rogers – such as Eddie Murphy’s “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” – and what Rogers thought of them. Starting in the 1990s, there was also right wing critique of Mister Rogers’ philosophy of recognizing children for the uniqueness and loving them for who they are as being a cause of children to grow up to be selfish and unmotivated. Most heartbreaking is the appearance of “Christian” protesters at Rogers’ funeral, some of them bringing their own children to shout hatred at the man who lived a life based in love. Even Rogers’ loses hope as seen in clips where PBS brought him in to make PSAs after the September 11th attacks and he questions whether anything he can say would make a difference.
There’s a lot of nostalgia for me in watching this documentary, and I’m particularly pleased to remember things I loved like Mister Rogers’ fish, the traffic light next to the aquarium, and characters like Trolley and Daniel Striped Tiger. On the other hand, I have absolutely no recollection of Lady Aberlin, the only human character who interacts with the puppets in the Land of Make Believe, so it was nice to become reacquainted with her through clips from the show and interviews with Betty Aberlin. This was a very emotional movie to watch for me, and I know I’m not alone, so if you do go see it I recommend bringing a box of tissues.