In Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
A fitting and moving tribute to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and the legendary man himself
As a kid growing up in the new millennium, I will be the first to admit that I had not watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and didn’t really know much about it. So imagine my surprise when I walked into the theater and realized that everyone around me was at least 30 years of age.
Nonetheless, the lights eventually dimmed and the audience hushed up, as the magic of cinema did its thing and I was absorbed into the documentary. Ultimately, it didn’t matter who you were — whether you were young or old, woman or man — because everyone left that theater in tears.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor immediately starts with forty-year-old Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian Minister, beginning his educational preschool television series. The documentary lightly touches upon his personal life and his childhood. Nonetheless, the filmmaker certainly doesn't shy away from addressing the scandalous rumors which surround Mr. Rogers (spoiler alert — they’re not true!) Filled with numerous accounts from those who were close to Mr. Rogers, the documentary chronicles one man’s life and the impact he’s had on American Culture.
Won’t You Be My Neighborhood spends a great deal of time analyzing what exactly was so fascinating about the show. Rogers wasn’t afraid of employing a slow and unhurried pacing style in his delivery. In a TV landscape filled with loud explosions and quick cuts designed to artificially create intense emotions in little kids, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood introduced a reprieve filled with quiet moments of contemplation.
The documentary also explores how the show went on to change television as a medium. With the realization that TV is an extremely personal medium (more so than the cinema, which emphasizes traditional narrative storytelling and the like), Fred Rogers employs TV as a more direct and personal method of communicating, as he constantly addresses the camera, and therefore forms a direct bond with the viewer. It’s interesting to realize how big of a role Fred Rogers was in this development of creating a more and more streamlined connection with the viewer, as this was years before vlogging on YouTube or Oprah’s revitalization of the talk show format. It was Mr. Rogers who was one of the first to try to directly connect with audiences through the screen.
As a result, from a purely anthropological point of view, Fred Rogers was a fascinating man in how he revolutionized television.
“There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” —Mr. Rogers
What impresses me most about this film, however, was how it powerfully captures the emotional truths and values of Mr. Rogers’ legacy. The narrative drives deep into the core of Mr. Rogers’ mantras and ideologies, as the documentary really tries to understand where his beliefs came from and how they developed over time.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was developed towards the end of the 1960s — an era marked by the turbulence of the Vietnam War and the unrest of the Civil Rights Movement. Nonetheless, Fred Rogers bravely chose to preach values — ideals which, in a world marked by such chaos at the time, became more and more difficult to achieve.
In one of his episodes, Rogers directly addresses the meaning of assassination. This was a period in time where adults could barely grapple with their grim realities; Rogers decided to help young children cope with the after-effects. This was revolutionary, as Rogers’ prudent honesty was exactly what was needed when explaining these multi-faceted truths to children. In a world filled with hate and difficulty, Fred Rogers chose to instead preach the Christian ideals of love, kindness, and acceptance to an entire new generation of children.
Of course, it was hard for me not to draw parallels between then and now. Right off the bat, the film goes on to describe one of Rogers’ first episodes — when King Friday XIII decides to build a wall. No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself on, it’s hard to shake this feeling of forlorn apprehension which we as a nation find ourselves in. Won’t You Be My Neighbor consequently becomes a welcome break to the gloom and doom, opting to instead inspire audiences with optimism and human kindness.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is still screening in limited theaters near you! Be sure to go watch it before the run ends.