It seems almost impossible. For 33 years, Fred Rogers switched into sneakers and a cozy cardigan, and nestled in to host a children’s show called Mister Rogers Neighborhood. The times changed. TV became flooded with loud and violent cartoons that were basically thinly-veiled toy commercials. But Rogers was a constant, always there to smile and encourage. But what do we–the generations who grew up watching him–really know about Mister Rogers? Through interviews with family and friends and a deep dive into the show’s archive and Rogers’ personal letters, Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reveals the complexity, doubts, and curiosities of the man behind the beatific grin and cardigan.
First, a word of comfort: There’s nothing in this doc that will shatter your fuzzy, warm feelings about Mister Rogers.
Those dark rumors about his bloody Navy SEAL past, and those gnarly tattoos hidden under his sweater sleeves? Utter bunk. The truth of Rogers is far less flashy. He was a rich kid, whose childhood was shaped by illness and loneliness. As a boy, he escaped to his imagination, creating characters who’d comfort him. Years later, he became a minister. And saw television as incredible tool to broadcast a message of love and acceptance. At a time where children’s television was in a rough and tumble infancy, Fred Rogers proved a revolutionary, bringing his own memories of childhood into stories and songs he hoped would ease the pain and fears of kids everywhere.
The doc explores how Mister Rogers Neighborhood developed, as a cultural touchstone that inspired devotion, parody, and the inevitable think pieces, which decried Rogers for creating a generation of “entitled” youth. It’s fascinating to see how the perception of the show shifted, and how unfairly Rogers’ legacy was not-so-long-ago maligned. But all that is something a solid magazine article could get across. What makes Morgan’s doc stand out is the understanding of Rogers through his own words.
I have vague but warm memories of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. As the theme song chimed at the start of this film, my eyes welled with tears so overwhelmed was I with intense emotion. I didn’t remember what I’d seen on the show decades ago. But I remember how Rogers made me feel: safe and seen. Watching the doc, I marveled at the lessons that this mild-mannered minister dared to tackle on a show for small children.
With the help of the Daniel Tiger puppet, he addressed the Bobby Kennedy assassination. When uproar and assaults were breaking out over the desegregation of swimming pools, Rogers and a black cast member defiantly yet mildly shared a baby pool for a refreshing foot soak on a hot day. After the show had run its course, Rogers returned to television to offer a message of hope and support to parents and children who were frightened in the wake of 9/11. Even following his death, his words about “helpers“ would go viral again and again, giving hope to his grown audience when they need it most.
But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? won’t allow Rogers to be painted as a saint either. He wasn’t perfect, but a person, who struggled with anger, self-doubt, and even homophobia. In one of the film’s most affecting sequences, François Clemmons (A.K.A. Officer Clemmons of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) recounts how Rogers requested him to stay in the closet to preserve his place on the show. That’s not the end of that story, but it is an important reminder that even our heroes can make terrible mistakes. The doc asks not that we ignore them, but learn from them and from Fred, as we always have.
We must inevitably address the death of Mister Rogers. And you will cry. If you’re like me, you’ll cry throughout. Bring tissues. Lots of them. But in the final act, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t ask you to mourn Fred Rogers, but rather to continue his legacy. One smiling expert on all things Rogers looks directly into camera, and asks essentially, Ask not what Mister Rogers would do. Ask, “What are you going to do?”
In this gentle way, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? turns from feel-good bio-doc to a beguiling battle cry. In a time where it seems conflict and division is everywhere and unavoidable, a reminder of the love, decency, and respect of Mister Rogers is sorely needed. And it’s up to all of us to bring it back.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor clip
Won’t You Be My Neighbor played in the Festival Favorites section of the SXSW Conference. It will open in theaters on June 8th.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com