This documentary explores the life and career of Fred Rogers, the creator and star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, highlighting his drive to connect with children and impact them in a way that no one else could.
For nearly four decades, Fred Rogers told children that they are special on his public television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Morgan Neville’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, spends an uplifting hour and a half not airing dirty laundry or sullying a legacy, but reinvigorating the lessons that Fred Rogers cared so much about and bringing them to a new generation.
Using puppets, song, piano, and his trademark sweaters, Fred Rogers purposefully acted to counteract what he believed were increasingly negative messages from popular culture, starting in the 1960s. He believed, wholeheartedly, that children need someone to speak both for them and to them. He tackled tough topics and real issues both for children and for parents, figuring out ways to speak to them and with them, rather than down to them.
Not merely content to teach kids to sing and spell, he believed that it was his duty to speak truth and love into the hearts and minds of his viewers. He used his show and his puppets to speak against the Vietnam War. By washing the feet of his African-American co-star François Clemmons, Mr. Rogers spoke against racism and segregation. Moreover, François Clemmons also starred as Officer Clemmons on the show, sending the message to young black children that they shouldn’t have to be afraid of the police. Mr. Rogers remained unflinchingly optimistic and positive for his viewers, even while battling worries that he wasn’t good enough.
This documentary is absolutely needed in this day and age of negative political rhetoric, hatred, intolerance, and darkness. While I absolutely appreciate and tend to gravitate toward darker films that provide us with a grim view of reality, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? utilizes interviews with Fred Rogers’ friends and family, as well as celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, and archival footage of Senate hearings and home movies to illustrate that you actually can have a genuine morality and display goodness that effects change in the world around you.
I think we can safely say that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will be a strong contender at the Academy Awards this year. Rather than aiming at scandal and unveiling a dark truth (which I was afraid would happen, on the heels of the long-running Bill Cosby scandal), director Morgan Neville takes his time in weaving a tale that Mr. Rogers himself would be proud of. He takes on the ridiculous criticism that Mr. Rogers has destroyed children’s minds by telling them that they’re special, not denying the inherent, difficult truth that there are darkness and evil in the world, but saying that we don’t have to be captive to it.
In this landscape of slow-burning, gritty films, this is the most heartwarming experience I’ve had this year in cinema, rivalled only by Christopher Robin, but never topped by it. Mr. Rogers reaches right through the screen and gives the audience a huge hug and a smile, telling us that everything will be fine.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.