Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an illuminating look at how one man’s convictions were able to shape a generation.
While society was undoubtedly afflicted with any number of issues back when his television career started in 1966, Fred Rogers believed that kindness was always the answer, and most problems resulted in some way from a lack of love. His message was moving, and his impact was profound. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows everyone how necessary courage is when showing kindness and the thunderous impact it can have.
What’s fascinating is how simple the sets of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were and how original their show was in comparison to other children’s television of the day. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is meticulous in explaining the show’s humble beginnings and how they mirrored Rogers’ faith. It was never about impressing children with a shiny set; it was about the simple yet resonant message he shared. At one point, the iconic television figure had intended to become a minister, but after coming home from seminary and seeing how children were entertained on television, he resolved that society should be using this medium to educate children as well.
Rogers often made a statement with just the simplest of acts. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? dives into one of the more memorable episodes involving Officer Clemmons (François Clemmons). In 1969 during the height of civil rights tension in the south, Rogers wrote an episode where he and Clemmons shared a kiddie pool together and put their feet in to cool off. The visual of both of their feet in the pool is powerful and sent the message, contrary to popular opinion, that two different races can co-exist peacefully.
Neville also spends a great deal of time establishing that our favorite television host wasn’t perfect. Clemmons goes into great detail about how he had a tough time adjusting to the idea that he was a homosexual and Rogers’ role in that process. As the years went on, Rogers became less concerned about his initial beliefs and more about letting him know his worth. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does not characterize Rogers as being a saint but the film does show that he always strived to improve in all areas every day he was alive.
Neville makes ample use of family members, friends and colleagues from the show to demonstrate how authentic everyone’s favorite neighbor was. Rogers never had a TV persona. What we saw was who he was, and that’s precisely why everyone loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tells the story of how he once made an appearance at a station in Boston and how the line looped around numerous city blocks just for a chance to meet the man who liked us just the way we were. Rogers’ presence was comforting and his words reassuring.
Public television turned to their most recognizable figure during its harshest moments. When children were hurting themselves pretending to fly like Superman, Rogers did a week on superheroes. Mister Rogers’ Neighboorhood often tackled life-altering events such as death, divorce and even war. PBS also brought him out retirement for a series of PSAs to help others cope with the events of September 11, 2001. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows how even in our darkest moments, kindness and love can uplift others.
Neville best crystalized Mr. Rogers by revisiting the last commencement address he gave at Dartmouth University in 2002. Rogers wanted the world to take stock of how kindness has impacted us all and recognize we had the power to affect others positively. He stated:
I’d like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some, like my astronomy professor, may even be in Heaven. But wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self. And I feel that you deserve quiet time, on this special occasion, to devote some thought to them. So let’s just take a minute, in honor of those that have cared about us all along the way. One silent minute.
Neville immediately asks various luminaries connected to Rogers and the audience who they thought of. For me, it was my mother and father who even during the worst of times managed to guide me with kindness and compassion. Perhaps Rogers’ greatest gift to us all is an appreciation of what once was and what could be if we were kinder to one another. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a gift wrapped in nostalgia with lessons which are timeless.