Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor
In the late 1960’s a kindly soft-spoken man decided to use the medium of television to reach out to children in a way no other show was doing. This man was Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a message for kids everywhere that everyone, including themselves had inherit value. For four decades, his series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, became a staple of television as generations of kids grew up with this unique TV host. The show was not particularly lavish, in fact at one point during this documentary a producer said they did the opposite of what a successful show is supposed to do. The key to its lasting success was in its host who connected with the audience in a way that proved he understood what it was like to be a kid, and never talked down to them or used them as a demographic to sell ads to.
Today as the world seems to be falling apart and people are filled with hate and rage, documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville saw fit to remind us of the television neighbor we all had, who saw the best in everyone. His film Won’t You be my Neighbor takes a look at Fred Rogers, a man so unlike anyone else. Talking with; family members, friends, and colleagues he paints the picture of Mr. Rogers being every bit the kind and empathetic man we all saw on TV. Neville uses this perspective to pull back the curtain and show us that Fred Rogers was just a regular person like all of us who had; hopes and fears and dreams and doubts. This cast a whole new perspective onto many of the iconic moments in his storied career. We learn that during his famous testimony before the US Senate to save Public Television, his nerves were eating away at him. Outtakes from the PSAs he gave after the attacks of 9-11 showed that behind the scenes, he doubted he could do any good, and had to be encouraged and lifted up by his producer to complete the job. We also see a somewhat surprising sense of humor of a man who; enjoyed a ribbing at the hands of Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, and played practical jokes on his coworkers. Through archived footage and interviews we see Rogers forced to grow from a children’s TV host into an authority figure much sought after for his wisdom. His ability to tackle hot buttons topics in a way which would be understood by young people was a unique gift as many in the media and political arena would seek his help in communicating with children about controversial issues.
This documentary resonates with audiences on a deeply emotional level, as it encourages us all to go and live the best way we know how because that’s what those who love us want us to do. As I walked out of the theater at my screening, I saw countless of my fellow moviegoers wiping tears from their eyes at the credits began to roll. In a world as filled with anger and divisiveness as it is now, Won’t You be my Neighbor proves to be the perfect catharsis, as we see an in-depth story of a man who was the best of what we can be. Even if you had the misfortune of not growing up with Mister Rogers Neighborhood, you will find yourself swept up in this look at a man who wanted to spread kindness, tolerance and knowledge to future generations. It also never hurts to be reminded that no matter who you are or what you do, whether you; swim or draw or play music or even break dance, you are special because of who you are.