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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


Featuring Joanne Rogers, François Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, David Newell, Joe Negri, Jim Rogers, John Rogers, Nick Tallo, Elizabeth Seamans, Margy Whitmer, McColm Cephas Jr., Kailyn Davis and archival footage of Fred Rogers.

Directed by Morgan Neville.

Distributed by Focus Features. 93 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Particularly with the state of children’s entertainment – and more broadly with rot in the state of the world at large – 20 Feet from Stardom director Morgan Neville’s documentary on pioneering children’s TV host Fred Rogers is both a breath of fresh air and also oddly depressing.

After all, the film shows a world that was truly civilized. It shows a world that was not ruled by cynicism, but instead by compassion. It shows a world where people tried to understand each other, to care for each other, instead of belligerently bellowing “Lock her up” every time they felt threatened or their world view was questioned.

In many ways, Fred Rogers was the anti-Trump; a quiet, thoughtful, humble, smart man who put other people’s needs above his own.

Now, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not a political film, per se. Fred Rogers was an ordained minister who only got into television on a whim while in seminary. He was a life-long registered Republican. However, he was an old-school conservative. He was a humanist. He believed in helping others.

Most importantly, he was devoted to his sacred duty of caring for children.

Sure, his show was a little slow-moving, a little cheesy and very square by comparison to today’s faster, snarkier, sensation-seeking missiles of children’s “entertainment.” However, very few (if any) children’s hosts or programs connect with children and what it is like to be a child in the same way that Mister Rogers did.

He was always an adult figure to them, but he didn’t patronize to them just because he had more life experience than they did. He took them seriously. He respected their innocence and their openness. He believed in the importance of teaching and touching them. He remembered what it was like to be a child.

Ironically, Mister Rogers is a shining example of the mythical 1950s “great again” lifestyle cynically trumpeted on the MAGA hats. However, in a short segment towards the end of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a series of FOX “News” talking heads blamed the man’s belief that all children are special for what they considered giving people a feeling of “entitlement.” Strangely, those “dangerous” beliefs that Rogers promoted came directly from basic Christian religious teachings.

Now, in full disclosure, while I always respected his work, I was never a regular viewer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even though I grew up during the height of his show’s popularity. Watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes me wish I watched it more often. But it also oddly made it feel like I had.

The movie makes good use of lots of wondrous footage of the old show – including a spectacular skit done a mere six months into his run in which he tries to gently, humanely explain the concept of assassination to his audience after the murder of Robert F. Kennedy.

We also get to see lots of talking head interviews with friends, family, children, co-workers and even a few guest stars – although Yo-Yo Ma is about as high as they go on the celebrity scale. However, these loving, respectful tributes give you a nice insight into the man behind the show.

Still, the real mother lode is a group of archival interviews with the man himself, drawn from throughout his life and career. It shows Mister Rogers to be complicated, sometimes conflicted, somewhat insecure and unsure of himself, but generally a truly giving and empathetic man who believed in sharing his knowledge and compassion with the generations that followed him.

Sometimes these days it seems like genuinely kind and caring people like Mister Rogers are extinct. I hope that is not the case. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is solid proof that we need more quiet, caring voices just like his in the modern world.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: June 28, 2018.

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