Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Review
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicles the life of Fred McFeely Rogers, Presbyterian minister, children’s television show host, and the most loveable Republican since Abe Lincoln. From 1968 to 2001, Mr. Rogers kept children out of their parents’ hair by offering a half-hour program specifically designed to counter the cartoonish violence and frenetic pacing of nearly every other children’s show at the time. On his show, Rogers sang, offered advice on topics ranging from trivial to life-changing, and worked a multitude of puppets to give those loftier concepts a soft, kindly face. 15 years after his death, the kindness and bravery of Fred Rogers is finally being celebrated.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? puts to rest many of the more unsavory rumors about Rogers’ life. It does so in a blunt and understated manner. For instance, the “torso covered in tattoos” rumor is debunked by showing Rogers during his daily swim at the local pool. Rather than rely on celebrities bloviating about what Mr. Rogers meant to them, this film makes judicious use of a handful of people who were closest to Rogers in life. These include his wife, Joanne, and his children, as well as François “Officer Clemmons” Clemmons, David “Mr. McFeely” Newell and Joe “Handyman” Negri. Negri, in particular, reveals the more riotous stories from backstage, but all lean into the idea that under his kindly exterior, Rogers was a true radical. For example, in a clip from the show’s first week on the air, the puppet King Friday XIII (the monarch of the Land of Make Believe) deigns to build a wall to keep “undesirables” out. Oddly prescient, that.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes the idea of Rogers as a radical credible. After all, the titular song at the top of each show contained an idea that, at the time, almost assuredly rubbed people the wrong way. Here was a white man inviting everyone to live in his neighborhood, regardless of skin color. “I have always wanted a neighbor just like you,” he sings, a sentiment that wasn’t as commonplace in America during the still-segregated era when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered. But Mr. Rogers’ true brilliance was showing by example, and director Morgan Neville showcases two memorable instances of this.
The first is Mr. Rogers’ appearance before Congress on behalf of funding the Public Broadcast System. Facing an adversarial Senator Pastore, who had already decided to can PBS, Rogers merely recites the lyrics to a song he had written for the show. Pastore folds immediately, saying “You’ve just earned your $20 million.” The believability of this would be questionable even in the most well-acted work of fiction, yet you can find this clip on YouTube.
The second instance of Mr. Rogers leading by example revolves around the character of Officer Clemmons. As an African-American, Clemmons was hesitant to appear on the show but recognized the importance of children of color seeing a friendly, familiar face as law enforcement. Even more importantly, he participates in a bit where Rogers essentially spits on the idea of segregated swimming pools. Here, Rogers invites Clemmons to join him in a small wading pool; Neville intercuts this with footage of White lifeguards throwing bleach into a pool where Black children are swimming. Clemmons also figures into an incident where Mr. Rogers wasn’t so enlightened. One of the other cast members discovered that the then-closeted Clemmons had been to a gay bar. “I had a good time!” says Clemmons, who was then told that any future visits to a gay bar would result in his termination from the show. However, Clemmons does say that Mr. Rogers “eventually came around to” acceptance.
“Love is at the root of everything,” Mr. Rogers says in an early clip, “or lack of it.” Much like his PBS colleague Jim Henson, Rogers used puppets to convey his message. Rogers’ first puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger, serves as an animated avatar during intermissions. This is because, as Mrs. Rogers points out, Daniel was an encapsulation of her husband’s childhood feelings of insecurity and desire to be loved. It’s implied that Mr. Rogers was bullied as a child–he was called “Fat Freddie,” which may explain his insistence that children’s feelings are just as important as an adult’s. However, Mr. Rogers also voices King Friday XIII, who represents that adult’s need to always get one’s way.
Viewing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as an adult is an interesting experience. You see that the show never leads you to believe that the puppet segments are anything other than fantasy. There is a clear distinction between reality and imagination. Mr. Rogers never talks down to his viewers, nor does he sugarcoat topics like death, divorce, or assassination. His manner is deliberate and calm, and he’s very matter of fact. Furthermore, contrary to what his critics say in failure-blaming articles and the like, Rogers never promised you fame, money or success. He just told you that no matter your body shape or appearance, you had value. We could use more people like Fred Rogers in the world.