OnScreen Review: "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?"

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Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

For many, many years, Mister Rogers was a staple of PBS and children’s lives in America. I remember watching him as a child growing up in the 80s. He was far from my favorite show as a kid, but there is no denying that he was a distinct part of my childhood. All these years later, even if I can’t remember all the words to the song to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I can at least remember the tune, Mister Rogers coming in through the door, changing into his sweater and changing his shoes, the trolley to the neighborhood of make believe, and then the closing song “It’s Such a Good Feeling.” My experience with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was limited to my own individual childhood viewing for a few years, and so it was great to get to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? to gain a greater appreciation for who Fred Rogers was and how radical his show truly was.

Sitting in the theater with this documentary was a journey back to my childhood. I have no concrete memories of Mister Rogers’ Nirhgborhood as a kid, but the feel of the show, which was different in content and pace from practically every other kid’s programming out there, came flooding back. I remembered the mailman Mr. McFeely and Lady Aberlin and the puppets King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde (who was modeled after Rogers’ own sister.

The documentary is not merely trafficking in nostalgia, though. It allows the audience to experience as adults what they experienced as children and to have a more complete picture of that viewing experience. It pulls back the curtain and fills in the history of the show that you wouldn’t have been aware of as a six-year-old. One of the highlights of the film is a pivotal testimony that Fred Rogers gives in front of Congress to secure funding for PBS in its early days, essentially securing the funding single-handedly and winning over a hardened politician to do so. These are details I was oblivious to because I was not alive when that happened.

I was fascinated to discover how much thought went into the presentation of the show and how brave and frank Fred Rogers was in how he talked to kids and what he talked about. In the first week of the show he addressed the Vietnam War. Within the first year of the show he talked about the Robert Kennedy assassination. These were difficult subjects that grownup citizens were struggling to cope with and Mister Rogers is not only talking about them in no uncertain terms, but he’s doing it for kids and in a way that they could understand. He connected with kids in a way that few adults can on such a mass scale. Being able to talk to kids on their level was one of the keys to the success of his show.

Perhaps the most important key, though, was his faith. Fred Rogers initially intended to go into ministry until he discovered television and decided that he could reach more people and have more of an impact through that than by pastoring a congregation somewhere. That certainly proved true. His belief that everyone is special is firmly rooted in his faith and the idea that every person is a creation of God and thus has inherent value and everyone can love and be loved. He paired that with studying in higher education on child psychology and participating in groundbreaking studies on early childhood education at the University of Pittsburgh. Getting all of this information in the documentary, you see the heart of the man.

He was ordained by the Presbyterian Church as an “evangelist for television” as his wife puts it, an unorthodox ordination to be sure. Hearing her say that left me with the distinct impression that having Mister Rogers on TV was almost like having a Sunday School teacher on weekdays in my life as a kid. The other revelation I had watching the film was how much Fred Rogers reminded me of my grandfather. Like Fred Rogers, my grandfather was lean in stature, had similar dark hair that was graying and was also kind in disposition and soft-spoken. He also never lost his connection to his own childhood and thus was able to connect with his grandchildren on a child-like level. My grandfather didn’t use puppets, but he would dress up like a clown to entertain other kids at church events or things like that. It’s a connection I never made until watching this documentary.

Fred Rogers was the genuine article. He created a wonderful world of make believe for kids, but there was nothing false or insincere about him. What the kids saw on TV for years was exactly who he was when the cameras were off. Some people look at what Mister Rogers Neighborhood did and think it’s weird or off-putting that an adult would be so invested in the lives of kids like that. We’re conditioned to believe that there’s something suspicious about it. It’s a cynical point of view. The truth is that we need more people like Fred Rogers in this world. When the credits rolled I don’t think there was a dry eye in my theater. There was a lot of sniffling going on, myself included. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a hopeful and inspiring film. Fred Rogers says that the song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is an invitation. I hope this documentary is taken by people as an invitation to see the inherent value of others and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars