Cast: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, François Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, David Newall, Joe Negri
Director: Morgan Neville
Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Perhaps the most discouraging thing about Morgan Neville's documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, is just how much society has disregarded Fred Rogers' message of love, peace, and human decency. If there was ever a time in which his landmark PBS children's show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, was needed to combat the deluge of human greed, cruelty, bigotry, and Trump-era delusion, then this is it. There's even an opening scene here depicting a puppet named King Friday XIII of the land of Make-Believe announcing his plans to build a wall in order to quell the rising fears of change within his kingdom. Neville understands the obvious modern-day irony, but the real heart of his film is Rogers' moral radicalism exemplified by his extraordinary gift in communicating with children.
Using archival footage and interviews with those who worked alongside Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor? encompasses a three decade-plus career in a streamlined, though meticulously crafted, manner. Neville uses plenty of footage from the PBS show throughout the years, but the real surprise is the archival material where Rogers sits alone at a piano discussing getting on the wavelength of children in order to engender positive self-image. There's something almost saintly about a man so polite and kind-hearted that one may fear Neville has a few shocking bombshells in store, but the demons here are mostly of the workaholic variety. For example, one of Rogers' sons at one point describes the hardship of having the "second coming of Christ as a father", and there's also Rogers' near autistic tendency of keeping his weight exactly at 143 pounds; a number, by the way, translating numerologically to "I love you."
Rogers' views on child psychology extended not only to the way his show was engineered-- lo-fi sets, ragged-looking puppets, simple props, slow pacing--but also to his belief that we should never talk down to children. Tellingly, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood delved into topics like divorce, depression, death, and even the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, in a way which never sugarcoated the truth, but treated children with respect. Confronting the horrors of real life was integral in Rogers' ideal version of childhood, even as its simple pleasures were also to be cherished. Still, for all of his progressivism, there were elements plaguing his career; like the way he handled François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, whom he asked to not come out publicly as gay for fear of losing funding. It wasn't until many years later during a private encounter that the two men reached a mutual understanding, and Clemmons' tearful response to eventually seeing Rogers as a father figure will cause even the most cynical audience member to wipe away a tear or two.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? is less concerned with peeking behind the curtain into the private life of a famous figure and more about appreciating it's subject's methodology. Neville understands that Rogers' message of love, understanding, and speaking honestly to children wasn't a passing fad. One only needs to look to his iconic 1969 senate testimony to secure the $15 million to keep public television from going extinct to recognize that for Rogers, this was more than simply his life's work. It was providing children all over the world the one thing that's sorely lacking in adults; hope. Even if Neville's film often feels emotionally manipulative, it's the kind of manipulation we could use more of these days, convincing us that for the brief span of 93 minutes, every human life has worth.