June 13, 2018
Those who grew up in the seventies may remember a children’s show nestled in between “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” on PBS called “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It wasn’t as flashy as its bookends, but it was every bit as charming, and probably even more historically important. The show and its creator, Fred Rogers, are the subject of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tells the story of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” chronologically, from the shows inception to its final episodes. It concurrently tells the story of Fred Rogers himself, who started life as a bullied child and wound up as the most popular children’s television host of all time. Through archival footage, private photographs, and interviews with cast and crew, Neville crafts a sweetly nostalgic portrait of an indispensable figure from seventies pop culture.
When Fred Rogers first realized the potential that television had, he was a Presbyterian minister who was watching people get hit in the face with pies. Right away, he knew that there was much more to the medium, so he gathered up a bunch of puppets and created his neighborhood. The talented performer, who not only hosted but handled everything on the show from voicing the puppet characters to composing the theme song, found a way to immediately connect with his audience of children. The show ran from 1968 to 2001.
When Neville shows clips from the first week of “Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood”, the viewer is reminded of how timeless the show was. The first week dealt with King Friday, the puppet king of “The Neighborhood of Make Believe,” building a wall and not letting outsiders into his kingdom. Of course, the other citizens of “The Neighborhood of Make Believe” eventually convince King Friday (whose full name is hilariously King Friday the 13th) to get rid of his border guards, but the clip is eerily prophetic. Makes you wonder which members of the current political administration missed that first week of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Mr. Rogers didn’t stop there. The whole show seemed to be about helping children learn about the world, and he didn’t censor the unpleasant stuff. Rogers taught kids about divorce and death, and devoted shows to ugly events such as the Kennedy assassinations and the Challenger disaster. “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” essentially taught kids about subjects that their parents might have been too scared to approach. Which sounds like weak parenting, and it is, but hey, if you’re going to have a surrogate parent, it may as well be Mr. Rogers, right?
Not all of the drama in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was on the small screen, though. The film also dives into Rogers’ fights with Congress over PBS funding and his condemnation of super hero movies after a few kids got hurt pretending to be Superman. When racism and segregation were boiling over in America, Rogers cast an African American actor named Francois Clemmons as a police officer on his show. The biggest scandal that “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” had to endure came when Clemmons came out as homosexual in the seventies, sparking protests of both Fred Rogers and his show. Clemmons’ sexuality never came up as a topic on the show, however, and Rogers and company were able to weather the storm.
As a documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is relatively safe, and that’s its only flaw. It’s still difficult to think of a bad thing to say about it. It functions as a wonderful trip down memory lane for those who remember Mr. Rogers, and it’s a great introduction to the man for those who don’t. Either way, one would be hard pressed to not enjoy Won’t You Be My Neighbor?