“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Although I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I’d be lying if I said it was a defining staple of my childhood. The little memory I have of it fits snugly among those of other PBS shows I watched at the time- including Between the Lions, Bananas in Pajamas, Zoom, Dragon Tales, Reading Rainbow, and Wishbone– though I don’t explicitly remember the lessons I learned. Oddly enough, my favorite part of every episode was the very beginning and the very end, whenever Fred Rogers would come inside his house and sing a song as he put on his sweater and changed his shoes. I liked the trolley and the sock puppets just fine, but something about Fred Rogers himself stuck with me. Every time he came on-screen I felt comfortable and safe, like I was in the presence of a loving grandparent. I wanted to stay in his neighborhood, and at the end of each episode, I was sort of bummed that I had to say goodbye.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the latest documentary from director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Best of Enemies), gives everyone a chance to say hello again. The film examines the life, guiding philosophy, and legacy of Fred Rogers. As the title suggests, it chronicles the origins of his popular children’s television show and the impact it made on audiences. Though it offers so much more than that.
It paints a portrait of a man who truly cared about children. Fred Rogers strove to explain the ways of the world to them in an honest yet comforting way. Whenever tragedies befell the real world- assassinations, racial tensions, etc. – he would address them on the show. And compared to the other kids programming that was around at the time, Rogers didn’t rely on slapstick or wacky antics to get the message across. He treated kids like adults in a way. He listened to what they had to say, he had conversations with them. He acknowledged their thoughts, their questions, their feelings. The level of tolerance, civility, and empathy he exhibited came from his own childhood, which in turn was laced with loneliness, insecurity, and experiences with bullying.
As positive as his methods weren’t they didn’t go without criticism. The film highlights a bit of controversy I had no idea existed. Apparently, there was an argument that Mr. Rogers helped spawn an entitled generation. That because he constantly told kids they were special and unique, these kids have grown up to be brats who think the world belongs to them and that they get a pat on the back just for showing up. Well you know what? It’s not the kids handing out the participation awards. It’s being handed to them by the adults, the same generation that’s been moaning about the whole entitlement nonsense in the first place. I know I’m getting a little off track here, but it’s a stupid argument and I’m tired of hearing it.
Anyway, that’s why this documentary is so compelling. In today’s day and age, when we’re so accustomed to hearing about how the good people we’d looked up to were actually scumbags or how people go out of their way to purposefully bring out the worst in others, it’s a relief to know that Fred Rogers’s kindness wasn’t a facade. The amount of compassion, tolerance, and civility he showed during his lifetime is so inspiring and so lacking in today’s world that it’ll surely move you to tears. It nearly happened to me. I would’ve liked to have seen more about his childhood, and more of how his youth shaped him to be the man we all know and love. Either than that, I can easily say it’s one of the strongest films of the year, and one I implore you not to miss.
Cosmic Grade: 4.5/5 Stars