It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood once again!
There never has been, nor there ever will be a man like Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers). With his television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he was able to provide children with a comforting place to learn about life and to feel special for just being who they were. While many television programs provided viewers with action, slapstick, and ham-fisted morals, Mr. Rogers used television as a tool to communicate with his audience in a warm and caring way, and he was just as sweet and compassionate outside of the show as he was in it. He was probably the least cynical man working in entertainment, and his impact on the world cannot be overstated.
Personally, I was a big fan of Mr. Rogers when I was a child, and learning about the kind of individual he was made me appreciate him more as an adult. I still have the newspaper clippings of when he passed away, because he was that special in my life. So I believe it’s about time that a feature-length documentary about his life has been produced. The film is directed by Morgan Neville, whose previous documentaries include Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal and 20 Feet From Stardom. I have not seen either of those films, so I am not familiar with his directing style. But I am thrilled to report that the documentary serves the legacy of Fred Rogers exceptionally well, and is heartwarming throughout.
The film is composed of archival footage of Rogers at various moments in his life and careers, with interviews of his family, close friends, and even people who worked on the show. (Yes, even Mr. McFeely! Speedy Delivery!) They spend most of their interviews looking back on all of the fond memories they had with Rogers, as well as the impact he had on their lives. The most touching of these is Francois Clemmens, also known as “Officer Clemens” on Neighborhood. Rogers supported Clemmens, a gay black man, at a time when such support was not often available. However, Rogers encouraged him not to come out as gay on the show, for fear that it might be too radical and alienate certain audience members. Although the end result was not what anyone truly would have wanted, Rogers did the best he could to respect his friends, while keeping his show running.
Also included in the documentary are special episodes of the show that were only aired once. Included in the collection is a reflection on the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and the despair that America felt afterwards. A clip like this is special to have in this documentary because it perfectly demonstrates how sensitive to certain issues the show was. This documentary also succeeds in showing just how much Rogers cared about children, particularly when he decided to continue producing Neighborhood after hearing that a child injured himself while pretending to be Superman. Even after the show ended indefinitely, he made small promos to talk about 9/11, which had affected him greatly.
The film does a splendid job of examining Rogers’ life, from his lonely and sickly childhood, to his journey to becoming a minister, and it even reveals who each puppet in the “Neighborhood of Make Believe” was based on. The footage of Rogers interacting with children using the puppets is just too precious to overlook. The only moment in the documentary to outmatch that is his winning over of Senator Pastore before Congress.
Some sections of the documentary examine Rogers’ sense of humor, which was put to the test by the practical jokes pulled by Neighborhood’s production crew. The floor manager tells a story about taking a picture of his own bare bottom on Rogers’ camera, only to get a poster-sized print of said picture from Rogers for Christmas. This got some big laughs from the audience at my screening. One part I found especially interesting was his response to parodies done by various comedians, including Eddie Murphy’s sketch on Saturday Night Live. He did not like the fact that they were mocking his image, as well as the intention of the show.
After the screening, I noticed that I took more than three pages of notes, and most of these notes were quotes spoken by Rogers, himself, in archival footage. Such quotes include “I do not need to put on a funny hat to have a special relationship with a child” and “What we see on the screen is part of who we become.” Personally, I could just fill this whole review with quotes from Mr. Rogers, because he is that wonderful to listen to. Luckily, the film knew this, too, and just allowed his story to be presented freely.
Won’t You be My Neighbor is everything that a documentary about Fred Rogers should be. It is heartwarming, funny, nostalgic, and most of all, genuine all the way to the final sequence. The people in my audience seemed to enjoy it immensely, even to the point of singing along with the songs featured from the show (Yes, I did too.). One more thing to mention with this documentary, is that it underlines that while Mr. Rogers may not be with us anymore, his mission of making a better world can live on through our actions and attitudes towards others. And now, to quote the end of every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, “I’ll be back next time! Bye!”