Won’t You by my Neighbor? (2018)
Dir. Morgan Neville; Fred Rogers
[4 out of 4 stars]
When it came to watching television as I was growing up, my options were chiefly limited to the programming on two channels: TV Land and PBS. Watching the former meant that I developed an odd connection to 1950s sitcoms like The Munsters (1964-1966), I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970), and Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967). They were fun shows, but not exactly current hits, unless you happened to have grown up in the 50s and 60s. PBS, on the other hand, provided more of a contemporary cultural connection. Shows like Arthur (1996-) and Liberty Kids (2002-2003) were both engaging and educational. Nonetheless, they and everything else pale in comparison to my love of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001). Fred Rogers with his cardigans, puppets, and sing-alongs enchanted me. As a child I did not realize how long he had been at it, or how vital he was to the blossoming of public television. All I knew was that I loved him and his neighborhood, from the fish he fed every episode to characters like Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday XIII. I have never forgotten that place, and Morgan Neville’s touching documentary about the man and the world he entered into, aptly titled Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018) after one of Mr. Rogers’ beloved songs, explores why I and millions of others share that sentiment.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor opens with a home movie of Fred Rogers, sitting and playing at a baby grand piano. He turns around and beckons the camera over, inviting us into the movie the same way he did in his show. He begins to speak, saying “it seems to be there are different themes, in life. And one of my main jobs in life, it seems to me…is to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life.” This calling to “help children” led him to his television career, first on NET as Misterogers (1961-1967), and then on PBS as Misterogers Neighborhood (1968-2001), later renamed Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Neville takes us through a chronological exploration of both Fred Rogers the man and Mr. Rogers the character, while also documenting the development and explosion of television programming that occurred throughout the 60s and 70s. PBS was a new entity in 1969 only six years after Misterogers premiered, so in many ways Mr. Rogers’ career is inextricably tied to public television as both its most recognizable star and its most passionate ambassador. Through a patchwork of personal reflections from cast members, family, and friends, interview footage with Rogers himself, who died in 2003, and footage from the historical moments that the show tackled, such as Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Neville provides us with a portrait of a heroic figure with a truly radical idea: that children should be taken seriously.
Rogers taped his first show on February 19th, 1963. Three months later, on June 5th, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan. It was an event that the entire country turned its eyes and hearts to, and one that children were exposed to whether their parents liked it or not. The day after the assassination, Rogers taped an episode where he, through his trusty puppet Daniel Striped Tiger, openly discussed and defined what assassination was. Here was a show aimed at young children taking the time to explain a painful and expansive concept, a “modulation” of sorts when death was suddenly in the everyday conversation around them. This was no anomaly, for Rogers taped episodes about topics such as divorce and illness, and even came back on the air to record a special in the aftermath of 9/11. He may have retired from television, but generations still wanted to hear what he had to say. For children, as well as adults who had grown up with him, Fred Rogers was a patient voice that knew children walked through this world and understood more than many adults gave them credit for. Watching the movie in Concord, NH provided an added layer of poignancy when the documentary turned to how Rogers covered the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, an explosion that claimed the life of Concord native Christa McAuliffe who would have been the first teacher in space. There was palpable grief throughout the theater, tears and exclamations, and then there was Fred Rogers’ voice, telling us it would be alright, just as he had in 1986. He and his show chose to never turn away from pain or discomfort, and generations have been the better for it.
Such an approach was rare in his day and remains rare now, and so is the central importance of PBS, a channel whose sole purpose is to educate and entertain. Nonetheless, in 1969 the Senate Commerce Committee was near a decision to cut off funding before the channel even truly began. Rogers testified at this hearing (watch the full thing here), and it is through this event that Neville depicts how Rogers and PBS are so inextricably linked. In his testimony, Rogers, speaking directly to Senator Pastore, stated this:
“I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’ And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”
In response, just a little while later, Senator Pastore simply said: “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.” Through the simple act of exemplifying the purpose of PBS and his show, Rogers secured a future for the channel. There is something inexplicably powerful in watching the footage of the testimony, a reality that Neville uses deftly. He allows it to play out free of commentary by talking heads that is so often employed in the genre, letting Rogers and the visible effect he had on Pastore stand on its own. In the current climate where bombast and name-calling reigns supreme, seeing a soft-spoken man eloquently and emotionally implore for governmental support should remind all of us what we are capable of when we remember that we are all human, and that we all want the best for children.
However, this documentary would have been incomplete if it had only focused on the national or global impact that Rogers had. Such an important part of his story is the purely individual experience of working with or watching him. Nowhere is this more effective than in the various moments in the film when François Scarborough Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show for years, speaks of his friend. A black musician and actor, Clemmons was apprehensive of portraying a police officer on the program, but he agreed to it after Rogers’ repeated requests. At a time when race relations were strained at best, to see two men, white and black, cool off their feet in a swimming pool together was a radical and empathetic image, one that occured on the show. Furthermore, it is through Clemmons and Rogers’ friendship that Neville examines how Rogers, for all his grace and care, was also human, and therefore imperfect. Clemmons recounts a period where he wanted to come out publicly, but Rogers told him that he couldn’t because the show would lose sponsors. So Clemmons remained closeted, something that put strain on his and Rogers’ relationship, and something that the conservative Rogers struggled with. Nonetheless, Clemmons stuck around, and one day during his customary sign-off of “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are,” Rogers looked at Clemmons. After the scene Clemmons asked Rogers if he was talking to him, and Rogers said: “I’ve been talking to you for two months, but today you heard me.” It is safe to say that at this moment there was not a single dry eye in the theater.
As is obvious by this point, I was deeply affected by the documentary and have wanted nothing more than to tell those around me all about it, a fact well-exhibited by the length of this review, I suppose. But that is what makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor so remarkable. To see it is an intensely personal experience if you grew up watching any iteration of Rogers’ show, and if it is your first time seeing the man or the program, you are given the rare opportunity to see a biographical and historical story told with the utmost attention to narrative cohesion and truth. There is nothing flashy about the construction of the movie, or particularly groundbreaking about its production. Nonetheless, Neville displays a remarkable awareness for narrative construction, never tipping the exploration of the man to a point where we lose sight of the greater historical narrative, or lose Rogers’ human spirit in the details of the larger backdrop. Because of this it comes to exemplify Fred Rogers better than anything else I can imagine. He was simply a man in a cardigan who wanted to make the world a better place, and if the $22 million box office haul is any indicator, there are quite a few people who feel that such a belief is worth celebrating.