One of the Best Films, Period
If you take away only one thing from Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, it should be that Fred Rogers, the man behind the long-running PBS children’s show Mister Rogers Neighborhood, was exactly what we always thought he was -- just an all-around nice guy.
Then again, if you take away only one thing away from this riveting portrait of a true American treasure, then you’ve likely missed the point that despite his cardigan-wearing simple-man presence, Rogers was in reality, a quite fascinating and complicated person whose wholesome message of kindness and love has positively affected multiple generations of Americans. He was a musician, TV producer, actor, song-writer, puppeteer, and a Presbyterian minister, all of which we learn in the film. He was not, however, a Navy Seal, nor was he covered in tattoos. That is fact.
Rogers’ show ran from 1968 until 2001 and is included on the list of some of the longest running television programs in American history, meaning that anyone alive above the age of a teenager has likely been plopped down in front of his show by a parent and has, at some point in their lives, wanted to give him a big ol’ hug.
Despite Rogers’ wholesome, unassuming persona, his show never shied away from uncomfortable topics. It covered such heady matter as racial equality, social tolerance, love, death, divorce, and acceptance of everyone. But more importantly, it presented them during times of such culturally significant events as the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and the 9/11 tragedy -- topics parents didn’t even know if their children needed to be informed of, much less, how to begin the discussions. Rogers took them on each day with dingy puppets, cheap cardboard sets, ultra-low production value, and a signature sing-song articulation that seemed harmless at best and a bit demeaning at worst. It is difficult to even think of him without playfully mimicking his “won’t you be my neighbor?” tagline. Adults rarely took him or his show seriously, and even accused him of pandering to children which makes this documentary all that much more important.
It is difficult to understand how there could have been any controversy around the show or the devoutly religious man whose driving force and ultimate mission was to counter the cultural junk on TV of the day with a different kind of television show. But there was.
Many questioned his sexual orientation while others blamed his “everyone is special” message for the feelings of entitlement and the softening of America’s youth. Regardless, Rogers powered through and even petitioned congress during a Senate hearing in which he successfully lobbied against Public Broadcasting budget cuts, a segment of which is featured prominently in the documentary.
In addition to many relevant snippets from the show, Neville features current interviews with many of the show regulars -- at least those who are still with us, including Joe Negri, wife Joanne Rogers, Betty Seamans, and Yo-Yo Ma who was on the show as a young cellist. Most memorable though, is a segment about racial equality with Francois Clemmons who played the friendly officer Clemmons, a regular black character on the show. Neville follows a horrific stock footage snippet of a white swimming pool owner pouring bleach onto black bathers with a segment featuring Rogers and the Officer Clemmons character enjoying a refreshing foot bath together on the set. Powerful stuff.
Neville hit pay dirt with his Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom from 2013 about the black backup rock-and-roll singers who spent their careers just beyond the stage spotlight, and his Won’t You Be My Neighbor will certainly be remembered come awards season. It is that powerful and that well made. Not only the best documentary in quite some time, but one of the best films, period. You’re guaranteed to run the gamut of emotions from laughter to tears, to anger, and elation. But most of all there’s a lingering sadness that casts a pall over the proceedings. A sadness from knowing that there simply aren’t very many people like Fred Rogers. People who give a damn about what is going on in the world with our children, and who will devote their life and energy to doing something about it.
So put on your favorite cardigan, slip into those comfortable sneakers and spend some time in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe with Won’t You Be My Neighbor. You’ll be glad you did. Because we can all benefit from a lesson of kindness and tolerance right about now from a man who spent his entire life trying to pound it into our heads.
(Released by Focus Features and rated “PG-13” for some thematic elements and language.)
Review also posted on www.franksreelreviews.com.