Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Needed Now More Than Ever

YOU LOVED A LOT OF FILMS THIS YEAR, BUT ONLY ONE FILM LOVED YOU BACK.

There’s a scene in this lauded documentary where we don’t get the full, proper background. Fred Rogers, the beloved TV icon, meets another revered personality: Koko, a western lowland gorilla who became famous enough to earn her own obituary in the New Yorker upon her death in 2018. When she met Mister Rogers, she sat down with him and started taking his sneakers off. We see Rogers watching this impressive animal intently, obviously in awe but also looking perhaps a little bit afraid.

Koko was thrilled though – this was the person she had been watching on TV many times. By removing his sneakers, she was repeating an act familiar to millions. Mr. Rogers had a profound effect on not just children.

Learning the value of television
This is the story of Fred Rogers, the man who was about to become a minister and realized that television could be his tool to reach out to children. He learned the craft in the 1950s, working as a floor director on several NBC shows. On a local station in Pittsburgh, Rogers developed puppet characters for a children’s show, studied to become a minister and started working with a child psychologist who helped him figure out what messages to convey on the show that would make him an American icon: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001).

An endearing portrait
This documentary became almost as universally beloved as Mister Rogers himself. It seems like the film was needed, perhaps more than expected. Director Morgan Neville made Best of Enemies in 2015, a great documentary about the televised 1968 debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. In my original review of that film, I pointed out the lack of intellect evident in then-candidate Donald Trump. Now that he’s been in the White House for years, his cruelty and lack of empathy has also been a running theme. Kindness is what we need, and that’s where Fred Rogers comes in.

This film creates an endearing portrait of him that points out a flaw or two as well. Rogers wasn’t terribly generous about parodies made of him, especially if they had the slightest hint of a mean streak, which might have had to do with the fact that he was bullied as a child. And when he learned that one of his most trusted collaborators, François Scarborough Clemmons, was in fact gay and had gone to a nightclub that had a certain reputation, he told Clemmons that as long as he’s on air as a part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood he could never visit that club again. The times were different, obviously, and Clemmons makes it clear in this film that Rogers saw him in a way that no one else ever did; the love is genuine.

We meet many of the most important people in Rogers’s life, including his wife Joanne, Clemmons and Tom Junod, the journalist whose life changed when he met Rogers (a story that a year later was turned into an equally brilliant feature film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). Their testimony helps us understand the man better, but so does the great amount of archive footage and interviews that Neville has put together, clips that make Rogers himself a highly visible presence throughout.

Everyone remembers Fred Rogers sharing a foot bath with Clemmons on the show, illustrating how there should be no barriers between skin colors. An important political statement, and Rogers certainly had that kind of unique influence. The film is full of touching moments, including scenes near the end where the interview subjects pause to think about a person in their lives who made a difference. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words. Such a lovely Fred Rogers-esque initiative. 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 2018-U.S. 95 min. Color. Produced by Caryn Capotosto, Nicholas Ma, Morgan Neville. Directed by Morgan Neville.

Last word: “A debate I’ve had with my documentary peers is who do we make films for? Do we make films to make each other feel good, pat each other on the back, preach to the converted, or argue with the converted? This was an opportunity to make a film to reach all kinds of people. Mr. Rogers was a unique cultural figure; he has no cultural attachments. When you watched him, you didn’t know what a Republican or Democrat was. It speaks to the fundamental ways we speak to each other. If we can’t agree about Mr. Rogers, then we are really screwed.” (Neville, Indiewire)

 

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