Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Review


When I’m feeling down, there’s a video on YouTube that I like to watch. It’s Fred Rogers AKA Mr. Rogers speaking before the U.S Senate Subcommittee on Communication, asking them to reject Nixon’s proposal to slash funding for public television. Here, he explains exactly what he thinks his program offers:

“This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’”

Ok, you just have to watch the video; it’s so great. Here it is:

Now that we’ve all had a good cry, can we acknowledge that something pretty magical happened there? I can hardly think of a more perfect example of kindness winning out over cynicism than the chairman of the subcommittee, Senator John Pastore, granting PBS the $20 million they were asking for before presumably standing up, stepping into the afternoon sun, and dancing off down the street.

This scene is shown in the wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but in the context of the film, and the year 2018, that feeling of pure happiness I get watching the clip on YouTube becomes mixed with a much more sobering sentiment: what did that $20 million really buy?

This isn’t to imply Mr. Rogers wasted the money – good lord, no. As the documentary shows, Fred Rogers was a legitimately amazing human being. He poured his soul into his art, and every episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood showcases the work of a kind, thoughtful, and heart-wrenchingly genuine man. My question is, “What did we do with the money?”, and when I see where we’re at right now, I’m worried the answer may be, “Not a whole lot.”

But let’s let that darkness be for a bit, and talk about what a terrific movie this is. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a relentlessly engaging portrait of a man’s life, one that is unafraid to show us Mr. Rogers at his most vulnerable, his most doubtful, and his most misguided. Rogers’ unwillingness to let François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show, come out as gay, reminds us that even the best of us can be completely wrong sometimes. As Clemmons reveals in interviews, Rogers was personally accepting of his sexuality, and his willingness to put a black man on television in the 60s, and have him play a police officer no less, displayed a lot of courage. Regardless, the fact that the documentary addresses and gives adequate time to this less-than-flattering detail about Mr. Rogers’ life is to be commended.

There are moments in the film that are laugh-out-loud hilarious. There’s a brilliant montage of clips showing how willing Mr. Rogers was to embrace slowness on TV – watching a timer count down a full minute, feeding fish, and of course, changing both his sweater and his shoes in every single episode. There are also some great anecdotes about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that went on, and a delightful clip of Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Rogers send-up, Mr. Robinson.

And of course, the film has its share of moments that are purely heartwarming. Mr. Rogers talking with Jeff Erlanger, about his life and why he uses a wheelchair, and then singing It’s You I Like with him may be the most I’ve ever cried in a theatre. Erlanger would go on to become an advocate and activist for disability rights, and he presented when Mr. Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. That’s another video you have to watch:

Fred Rogers believed that everyone deserved to be treated with love and respect. Everyone. I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “We didn’t deserve him,” but that’s exactly the kind of thinking that Mr. Rogers spent his entire life peacefully opposing. To go back to what I was saying earlier, this movie really does make you wonder if Mr. Rogers’ philosophy worked. He would often try to explain the terrible things that go on in the world, in ways children could understand, but towards the end of his life, when he was asked to return to television to address the nation after 9/11, even he was having his doubts. No matter what he did, or how much kindness he broadcast to the world, terrible things keep happening.

When I go online, something I’ve been trying to avoid as much as possible lately, I see so much anger from every possible side that I genuinely wonder if there’s any coming back from this. Mr. Rogers spent his life trying to be kind, trying to spread kindness as far as he possibly could…and now he’s gone. And when the documentary shows footage of people protesting his funeral, forcing their kids to hold up signs saying “God Hates Mr. Rogers” because of how accepting he was, something in me broke a little bit. Our anger at the world doesn’t end with everything magically being fixed – it ends with everything inevitably being broken.

But then the documentary does something amazing. It pulls back, and spends a full minute (Mr. Rogers loved his full minutes) watching every person who was interviewed think about someone who helped them become who they are today, something Mr. Rogers would often encourage people to do. This minute also lets the audience think about those people who inspired us, who showed us love, and took care of us even when we thought we didn’t need it. It’s not a showy moment, but it’s one of the most powerful examples of healing I’ve ever seen on screen. Because we weren’t thinking of people at their worst; we were thinking of them at their absolute best. We were thinking of them at their Mr. Rogers. I’ve heard a million arguments as to why treating people with pure love won’t solve anything, but I just don’t buy it – and this movie doesn’t either. This is a movie that leaves you drained in the best possible way, that shows the world in all it’s beauty and ugliness, and then begs you to not give up on it. We deserved Mr. Rogers – we deserve Mr. Rogers.

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