Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a much-needed reminder of the good in the world



Fred Rogers testifying before a 1969 Senate subcommittee.
By Leigh Monson

   A documentary about Fred Rogers, host and producer of the PBS program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, could not be any more timely that right now, not because anything happening in the world right now is directly related to him or his family, but because he was such a beacon of positivity and goodness that it feels only prescient that now we should look back on his life as the world seemingly falls apart around us on the basis of hatred and spite. Documentarian Morgan Neville goes the extra mile with Won't You Be My Neighbor?, not just giving us a historical accounting of Rogers' rise in prominence but an examination of the man himself, an exploration of what made Fred Rogers such a revolutionary figure in public kindness.
   This is accomplished through a combination of archival footage of Rogers himself, animated representations of Rogers' childhood, and interviews with Rogers' family, friends, and coworkers, painting a portrait of a man who was motivated by the singular goal of preaching kindness. Trained and ordained as a Christian minister, Rogers saw the emerging medium of television as the perfect vehicle for educating and empathizing with children, addressing real issues such as racial discrimination and national tragedy in terms that children can comprehend without condescending to them. He spent his life fighting for the existence of public television – at one point single-handedly saving PBS from having its funding cut – but his passion was in speaking directly to children through a television screen, proselytizing a message of kindness that was never dependent on children sharing his faith or beliefs. In Fred Rogers' eyes, compassion was universal.
   But more engaging than his works, which most Americans are familiar with either having grown up watching him or raising children who did, are the ways in which the film looks into the mind of Fred Rogers to see just how much of his public persona was an act and just how much was genuinely him. Though Mr. Rogers did have an adult sense of humor and was as emotionally complex a human being as anyone, what Won't You Be My Neighbor? finds is that he really was that revolutionarily kind in his daily life, treating friends and coworkers with the same attentive capacity he showed to his young audiences. The film actively attempts to find dirt on Mr. Rogers, debunking myths that hinted at hidden monstrosity and demonstrating the backlash against his message that everyone is special, but the closest it comes to showing any animosity or prejudice is that he was initially less than accepting of François Scarborough Clemmons – the man who played Officer Clemmons on the show – for wanting to come out as gay, but even that eventually turned around as Clemmons came to accept Rogers as a surrogate father figure.
   The film does raise issues of class disparity by referring to Rogers' wealthy background without really exploring how that may have affected his work or his political affiliations, but this feels less like a willful exclusion of damning material than something that piqued this writer's interest and just wasn't given further exploration. At the end of the day, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is just as much what it purports to be as Fred Rogers was himself. It's a portrait of a man who embodied kindness in about as pure a form as possible for any human to achieve, an aspirational figure who feels just as relevant now as when he was alive. Bring your tissues, because the power of that kindness is enough to make one tear up a bit.

4.5/5 stars
 
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.