Put very bluntly: Things are steadily, increasingly bleak, and pivoting away from the unrelenting awfulness — every day brings some new terror, yay! — sometimes feels overwhelmingly difficult. Don’t you need a break? A reminder that there can still be compassion and generosity of spirit and love in this world? Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is essential for these times and, I think, all time, a complex portrait of a gentle man who approached children with understanding and openness and who wanted better for all of us.
One of Fred Rogers’s sons compares his father with the second coming of Jesus Christ in the documentary, and written plainly like that, it may seem over the top. But while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I nodded along with that suggestion. I got it. In the interior logic of Morgan Neville’s film, Rogers seemed to actually practice what Christianity is supposed to be about: acceptance, generosity, compassion. He took his background in ministry and in early childhood development and merged the two into a mixture that captured children’s hearts. He spoke slowly. He acted deliberately. And he grew as a person over time, expanding his own beliefs in some ways and growing more pointed in others. When he asks “Won’t you be my neighbor?” I always want to say yes.
My mother says that when I was young, I was more into Barney & Friends than Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but this is libelous and rude and so we went and saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor? together once it finally opened in Baltimore on Saturday. (The film has been rolling out in various markets over the past few weeks, and will be fully wide this weekend.) She cried the entire time; I tried to keep my shit together and failed. It brought us closer together for those 93 minutes, and I refuse to believe I cared more about a purple dinosaur who encouraged me to hug other people (I hate hugs!) than the nice man in the red cardigan who encouraged me to talk about my feelings (I love talking about my feelings!). Why you gotta be lying in these streets, Mom?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? draws from a vast array of material to stitch together its tale of Rogers’s life, including old black and white footage of his first television program, Children’s Corner, and his work with child psychologist Margaret McFarland, who helped shape his philosophy that children should be protected and kept away from violence and mistruths; interviews with Fred’s widow Joanne, their two sons James and John, and cast and crew members from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; snippets of interactions with crowds of adoring children who sang along with him and clamored to tell him about their lives; and clips from episodes of the show, of course. Decades of the program are reflected here, from the first few years to stretches in the 1980s when the show was handling difficult topics like death and divorce to the final few seasons of the 31, all under Rogers’s guiding principle that “feelings are mentionable and manageable.”
And what is created by Neville and editors Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden is a documentary that doesn’t seem caught up in Pollyanna-ish innocence or naivete but pays homage to a man who knew the difficulty of childhood (“I had to make up a lot of my own fun,” Rogers says in an interview, alluding to a youth spent in shades of loneliness and melancholy) and felt, quite strongly, that children deserved as much respect and attention as anyone else. You see that commitment in his Senate testimony in 1969 to secure funding for public access television; you see that in his one-on-one interactions with children, when he stooped his frame to their level and waited and listened to what they had to say; and, many years into Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you see it in his address to a national broadcasters group, in which he delivers an anti-consumerist message that aims at programs that rely on hijinks and tricks to draw in viewers.
You think of Rogers as the man with the closet full of multicolored cardigans and the medley of voices used to bring life to puppets like Daniel Tiger, X the Owl, and King Friday XIII, but he also had a great strength of character and willpower to do what he did for decades, facing down decreasing public arts funding and increasingly frenzied, fast-paced children’s programming as competition. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? excels by paying homage to both of those identities, showing how the man unwaveringly stuck to his core beliefs because that’s what he thought the children he served deserved.
Animated vignettes that position Rogers as Daniel Tiger and reflect his introspection and interiority are particularly inspired, and episode outtakes that share his sly sense of humor are refreshingly unexpected. By presenting so much, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? gets across the depths of a man that inspired adoration and admiration in so many for doing the work that he considered not only pure but necessary. Fred Rogers’s defense of human dignity was a beautiful thing, and in our darkest timeline, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is one of the best films of the year.