If beloved children’s television show host Mr. Rogers were once a representation of all things milquetoast, in the summer of 2018, his message of love and tolerance is not only saintly, it’s radical. In the deftly crafted documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) manages to make the mild-mannered Fred Rogers look downright revolutionary.
The probing documentary takes us beyond the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the PBS show that raised several generations of children and was guided by the ethos that every person should be valued and deserves to be loved. It’s hard to imagine the notion might be a controversial stance, but today, just about everything can be fought, debated and taken down.
This is why Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is so moving, an emotional tonic for troubled times. Perhaps hindsight is 20/20, or perhaps one has to be an adult to fully comprehend just how incredibly brave and committed Fred Rogers was with his philosophy of helping children "through the difficult modulations of life."
It sounds strange to say, but Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was truly fearless TV, starting with its sweetly lo-fi aesthetic, co-starring a host of well-loved puppets. As one producer says, it was the opposite of all the elements that made for good TV — slow, quiet, gentle, an unlikely star — but it just worked, because he spoke to something so resonant: the idea that we all deserve love. The fearlessness extended to the content, addressing issues of the day head on, from the RFK assassination to racism and segregation. The show made bold political statements about tolerance, and it helped children understand grief and the darker sides of life in a way that showed respect and dignity for their feelings, which he described as both "mentionable and manageable" in testimony before a Senate hearing for PBS funding.
Neville’s film doesn’t try to be an exhaustive biography — it only cherry-picks a few details from Rogers’ childhood and sprinkles them throughout — but what it captures is his essence and his mission, which was a deeply spiritual one, informed by his expansive, inclusive Christian faith (he was an ordained minister) and his tutelage under child psychologist Dr. Margaret McFarland.
Through interviews with the producers and crew of the show (his "playmates" as he called them), his wife, sons, colleagues and friends, we come to know Mr. Rogers, who, yes, was a lot like what we saw on TV — warm, empathetic, guileless, open-hearted. But he was also sly, funny, a prankster and a person who had to learn how to deal with or "tame" his own feelings in different ways.
But for all the new perspectives we gain on Fred Rogers — how incredibly driven, political and complex he was — the most important one we’re left with is the one we had all along. And it’s that reiteration of unconditional love that truly pierces the soul. His message that every child is special is not one of entitlement or narcissism; it’s quite the opposite: humble, giving and caring.
"You don’t have to do anything sensational for people to love you," he says in a commencement address, and that simple, yet profound expression is a shot through the heart, and an incredible reminder for us all, courtesy of Neville’s extraordinarily sensitive film. Now it’s up to those of us who grew up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to embody what we learned from him.