FILM REVIEW – WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? – A documentary directed by Morgan Neville. Featuring Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Eddie Murphy. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language. 94 minutes.
Ever since it screened at Sundance back in January there’s been a strange phenomenon surrounding WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, director Morgan Neville’s fine documentary about children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers. People can’t seem to stop crying. A lot of critics spend their entire reviews writing about how they sobbed their way through it, and a colleague sitting next to me during the film’s New England premiere at the Independent Film Festival Boston was so inconsolable afterwards he had to go take a walk around the block before he could even bring himself to talk about the movie.
This is a bit odd, because “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not a sad film at all. It’s really kind of a boilerplate bio-doc about the placid Presbyterian minister who from 1968 to 2001 hosted a uniquely gentle and almost comically low-budget public television program that spoke directly to the fears and concerns of its preschool audience. Fred Rogers talked to children as if they were his peers – tackling scary subjects like war, divorce, and death with an unwaveringly steady voice and vast reservoirs of kindness in his eyes. He changed into his trademark cardigan and sneakers at the top of every episode while singing a happy song, a ritual that reassured young viewers we were amongst friends, or at least neighbors.
This is what knocks folks for such a loop during the movie. At our particular moment in history, we’re simply not prepared to receive Fred Rogers’s straightforward sincerity – so heartfelt and direct, devoid of any self-protecting irony. Every time I have turned on my television for the past three years I’ve been greeted by the putrid visage of a blathering orange yam preaching a toxic, semi-literate combination of bullying braggadocio and lachrymose self-pity while the faces of his followers contort with orgiastic abandon, braying a stream of unprintable epithets. The forthright decency of Mister Rogers feels as if it has been beamed in not from our recent past, from a distant planet altogether. If you cry during this film it’s because you’re realizing how much has been lost.
Neville won an Oscar for his wonderful music documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” a few years back, and he’s shrewdly assembled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as a highlight reel of footage that will probably feel familiar to public television aficionados but still leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling all the same. I’ll never not fall apart watching Rogers’ 1981 interview with 10-year-old quadriplegic Jeff Erlanger, so matter-of-factly accepting disability as just another unfortunate fact of life and chatting with this child as a friend like any other. You simply didn’t see people like Jeff on television back then, and what a gift it was to get to know him.
The show confronted so many topics that were taboo on TV at the time. Rogers began his career talking to kids about Vietnam and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and then wrapped it up returning to the air shortly after 9/11. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” never sugarcoated the subjects tackled within these episodes – witness the close-ups on his dead goldfish during that traumatic half-hour – our host always made it plain that the world could often be a frightening and confusing place. But with his cheapo puppets and bargain-basement production values, Mister Rogers also let every viewer know that it was okay to be angry sometimes, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re feeling sad.
What struck me most about the film was the iron will Fred Rogers must have possessed, his borderline fanatical exercise regimens hinting at the discipline required to see his stubbornly uncommercial and altruistic vision through three decades on the air in a milieu that mainly exists to sell plastic crap to kids.
We revisit the brilliantly subversive moment when Rogers invited his African-American police officer pal Francois Clemmons to soak his feet alongside him in a kiddie pool on a hot day. During an era when riots were breaking out over colored restrooms this was a giant screw-you to Jim Crow, but at the same time, we learn that Rogers put the kibosh on closeted Clemmons hanging out in gay bars. Our host was pragmatic enough to know the show could never survive a sex scandal, and it was going to take the outside world a long time to catch up to the utopia he depicted every week onscreen. We’re still not there yet.
You can’t help but think about this strength of character when the movie gets into the bizarre 2008 campaign by Fox News and other conservative commentators to blame the “softness” of millennials on Mr. Rogers telling them that they were “special.” I’ll never understand how baby boomers – who grew up in an age of unparalleled economic prosperity and job security yet did nothing but trash the planet and leave their children screwed with off-the-charts income inequality and insurmountable debt – can in good conscience keep puffing out their chests and calling everybody pussies just because younger generations don’t like to behave as boorishly in public as they do.
To watch “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is to be reminded that kindness and grace are what will endure and leave a legacy. It’s easy to laugh at these threadbare sock puppets but impossible to dismiss the tough truths they imparted. Visiting Mister Rogers’ neighborhood every week made growing up a feel little less confusing and frightening for this little kid, and it was a pleasure to return for these ninety-odd minutes.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper, and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.