Award winning documentarian Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a look back on the career of one of television’s most beloved and influential personalities, is a reminder to everyone that kindness doesn’t exist solely within a vacuum or specific aspects of society. Former Presbyterian minister turned children’s show host Fred Rogers, a more complicated and complex person than many would think, never picked and chose when to be kind. He brought a message of loving thy neighbour unconditionally to the world, and even in his darkest moments was never able to lose sight of the love he had in his heart for humanity. In short, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is exactly the film we need right now, especially since Rogers is sadly no longer around to remind us of basic tenets of human decency and empathy that many seem to have forgotten in our current age of perpetual rage and despair.
Although the Pittsburgh native was ordained as a member of the church, Fred Rogers never preached to his young audience. Adopting a naturalistic and humanistic approach to television production, his seminal Mr. Roger Neighborhood debuted in the late 1960s and ran to the early 2000s, always running counter to anything anyone claimed to know about how programs for children should be constructed. Never one to pull the wool over the eyes of a child, the iconically sweater clad Rogers always spoke plainly and honestly to kids about any number of potentially tough or taboo topics, even when the show took trips to the fantastical Land of Make Believe for a few minutes every show. Talking to kids about everything from protectionism (evidenced by an eerily prescient moment in the first season where King Friday the XIII wants to build a wall around his kingdom to protect himself from outsiders), civil rights, divorce, death, and anything else parents fear talking about in great detail, Rogers approached his audience with kindness, respect, and an open heart. His focus was making sure that children always felt good about themselves and that they were constantly made aware of how the world around them works.
Neville conducts interviews with those who knew Rogers best, and they all have basically the same thing to say about him. Anyone who ever worked with Fred was taken aback by just how much his squeaky-clean on screen image was reflected in his day to day life. Everyone in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has an anecdote about Fred Rogers going above and beyond the call of duty to fight for what he thought was right, from squaring off in Washington to oppose Richard Nixon and John Pastore’s attempted defunding of public broadcasting to going out of his way to make sure that people of colour and people with disabilities were represented and treated as on-screen equals. “No one could ever be that good” was how many people thought about Rogers, but after spending time with him, that attitude quickly turned around.
One could make a feel good documentary pretty easily out of someone as driven by purity and kindness as Fred Rogers, but Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Best of Enemies) digs deeper to get to the heart of the personal nature of Rogers’ empathetic crusades. Rogers’ relationship towards the medium of television was a fraught one considering he disliked mostly everything else that was on the air. Since his early days as a puppeteer, the fictional characters he created for the Land of Make Believe served as reflections of personality traits that the shy and reserved Rogers never liked to display publically. He was frequently the source of mockery from comedians and outsiders who saw him as square, but Rogers kept a good sense of humour as long as those poking fun were making fun of his personality and not the message he was hoping to deliver. A compassionate conservative through and through, Rogers also subtly struggled with more extreme conservatives who were less accepting of racial equality, homosexuality, and treating children as equals. Rogers wasn’t the monotonous robot many of his critics made him out to be, but an everyday human being who lived with similar fears and concerns that we should all acknowledge on a daily basis.
Won’t You Be My Neighbour? is a documentary firmly rooted in the overwhelming humanity and grace of its subject. Every bit of archival footage (much of it unseen for decades and property of the obviously protective Fred Rogers Company) and every song penned by the music loving Rogers contained within Neville’s film is strong enough to swell the hearts of the most hardened cynics, provided that they haven’t completely given up on life altogether. In an era where divisiveness, fear, and inequality are at an all time high, it’s a shame that Rogers (who passed away in 2003) isn’t with us anymore. Won’t You Be My Neighbour? isn’t a nostalgic look back at a simpler time in pop culture history, but a reminder that if we don’t have Fred Rogers around anymore, we all have to work that much harder at being kinder to our fellow human beings.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens exclusively in Toronto and select U.S. cities on Friday, June 8, 2018. It expands to Montreal and Vancouver on June 15, and to additional markets across Canada on Friday, June 22.
Check out the trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?:
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