Make the most of this beautiful film
By Jeffrey Sanzel
Morgan Neville’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a portrait of Fred Rogers, a man of deep faith and principles and unique in the pantheon of television personalities. His show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is lovingly celebrated in this wholly engaging 93 minutes. It does not attempt to be a full-fledged biography but rather a picture of the man in the context of his work and his mission. There are insights into his personal life (interviews with wife and sons), but it is more the story of the evolution of his vocation and his influence on American culture.
The film opens with the iconic entrance of Rogers changing into his sweater while singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and we are immediately transported back to the world he created. With its modest production values and its messages of love and understanding, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” became an integral part of our collective experience.
The documentary is simple and delicate, mirroring the show and the show’s creator. There are no bells and whistles. We are treated to an assortment of interviews that give perspective on the span and impact of Rogers’ career. What is common to all is that he was exactly who he presented himself to be. An ordained minister, Fred Rogers deeply believed that “love is at the root of everything” — learning, relationships, understanding. He saw television as a wonderful way to connect with children; a tool to make them better and happier people.
His wife (and much of the documentary) posits that, in essence, Rogers was Daniel Striped Tiger, the first of the many puppets he employed. The tamed feline represents Rogers’ doubts but also the ability to listen and learn. Daniel Striped Tiger is the bridge between the real and fantasy worlds that Rogers invented. As a child, he had been plagued by various illnesses and spent a great deal of time in bed; it was here that he began to realize the power of imagination and he used this to inform his work.
The film also touches on his faith, suggesting that the show was his ministry and he wore a sweater in lieu of a collar. The heart of this ministry, of course, is the power of love — love for each other and love for ourselves. The belief is that everyone is special (incorrectly twisted by some as entitlement) and we all have inherent value. The embodiment of this is his song “It’s You I Like” — a reminder that we grow through acceptance.
Fred Rogers presented himself as the friend every adult should be. He made it clear that his journey was to take care of the myriad of children who watched him. Unlike his own unhappy youth in which he was not allowed to be a child or to show his feelings, he aspired to provide a safe space for all of the country’s children.
Over the years, Rogers tackled everything from racial discrimination to divorce to death (including an episode focusing on grief that dealt with the assassination of Robert Kennedy). After retirement, he returned to do a few short PSAs about 9/11 — the horror of which overwhelmed him. What we take away is that he was unflinching in his desire to be truly honest with children but to always let them be children.
There are a treasure trove of clips, dating back to his pre-Neighborhood television days through his series and later efforts. There is the often-seen but no less-effective testimony that saved funding for public television. Puppets (King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, Queen Sara Saturday, X the Owl) and regulars (Mr. McFeely, the delivery man; Lady Aberlin; Chef Brockett; Officer Clemmons), songs and guests … the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Picture-Picture … they are all here.
Throughout his work, there was always an emphasis on taking time and not allowing the world to speed up. He believed that “slow” space was not “wasted” space. That silence is a gift. The final moments of the picture are perhaps the most memorable. He often invited people to take a minute to think of the those who have cared for them. One after another, the various people interviewed are shown to do just that. Like Fred Rogers and his work, it is at once so simple and honest and yet so powerful.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a film not just to be seen but to be shared. Find those people that mean the most to you and spend some time remembering the power of love.