Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Directed by Morgan Neville
If you’ve seen one of the nearly 900 episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” from its 32 years on television, you might view Fred Rogers as a kind, gray-haired man with a childlike spirit who sings and always has a hand in a sock puppet. If you’ve seen “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” from Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville (“Twenty Feet from Stardom”), you’ll get a different view. Fred Rogers was an intelligent psychologist, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and a public presence with adult thoughts about current events. If you only know Mister Rogers as you saw him as a child, you owe it to yourself to peel back the complicated layers of his life in a way only a quality documentary can.
His family was wealthy, but a childhood of illness and quarantine necessarily led to a childhood of imagination for Fred Rogers. He never served in the military, as has been popularly rumored, but he did get his piloting license. His family’s wealth allowed him to explore a variety of options for his future. A gifted pianist, Rogers got his degree in music composition before opting for the seminary, but he changed course once more when he saw that the new medium of television was letting down an important audience—children. He hated the dumb slapstick and violent action that hooked children’s attention, and thought there was a market for a kind-hearted educational program—and “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” was born.
Sorry for the superfluous history lesson, but “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” provides valuable insight into the background of Mister Rogers and his “Neighborhood” that you might not have known. I didn’t know Rogers retired in 1976, after about seven years of his show, in order to focus on other ventures…before realizing there was more work to be done for children and coming back out of retirement, Michael Jordan style, for another 25 years of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” This and other things add to the rich tapestry of Fred Rogers’ public and private life.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” presents a layered, detailed portrait of Fred Rogers: his passions, his motivations, his fears. He never got a job in organized religion, but his television program was a sort of secular ministry, speaking to millions of children across the country. The movie addresses the depressingly popular notion that Mister Rogers ruined a generation by telling them they were special. It doesn’t spend much time rebutting the Fox News talking heads and op-ed columnists—it doesn’t need a lot of time. Long live Mister Rogers.