Independent Film Festival of Boston 2018: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, by Sarah Brinks
I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I loved meeting all of Mr. Rogers neighbors and friends and visiting the land of make believe. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a heartwarming documentary about Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood host and creator Fred Rogers. It is a celebration of Rogers and what Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was for over thirty years.
I knew Won’t You Be My Neighbor was going to make me cry and it did from nearly start to finish. I doubt there was a dry eye in the theater by the end of the film but I wouldn’t describe Won’t You Be My Neighbor as being emotionally manipulative. It simply tells the story of an extremely rare thing: a truly good man. Rogers was an ordained minister who believed that children’s feelings are just as important and valuable as adults. He also believed that love or a lack of love was what drove people’s actions from infancy to adulthood. He was described by a friend in the film as a man whose faith told him to love his neighbor and love himself. That is what he brought to his neighborhood in each episode.
While I do believe–and the film makes a very strong argument–that Rogers was a deeply kind, compassionate, and patient man, he was not flawless. François Clemmons talks about how he was not allowed to be openly gay on the program in the 60’s because Rogers wouldn’t allow it. However, he did come around on the issue and did accept Clemmons sexuality in the end. Clemmons speaks about being on the show for two years and hearing Mr. Rogers say every time, “I love you just the way you are” and he finally asked him, “Are you talking to me Fred?” and Mr. Rogers answered, “Yes, and you finally heard me today.” It also tackles the recent criticism that Mr. Rogers telling you that you are special and loved just for who you are has made the recent generation so entitled. I have to give director, Morgan Neville a lot credit, he lets Rogers tell the audience exactly what he meant by that with footage from a commencement speech he gave at a college.
While Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is a big focus of the movie, Neville also spends a lot of time looking at other parts of Rogers’ life. In particular they talk about how people couldn’t quite accept Rogers as the man he really was. Because people couldn’t believe or accept that he really was Mr. Rogers, they made up a lot of rumors about him being gay, him being a navy seal, and having tattoos all over his arms, none of which are true. We see Rogers at the local pool swimming in the film and see he doesn’t have a single tattoo on his body. He was also adamantly against violence and was raised quite rich and affluent and never had to serve in the navy. Clemmons addresses the question of Rogers’ sexuality. He says that he knew that man for over twenty years and he would have been able to tell if Rogers was gay. Rogers was just a man who felt passionately and used kindness and love to communicate and interact with the world.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was groundbreaking and ahead of its time in so many ways. Rogers was at the forefront of creating children’s television. He also tackled some incredibly difficult topics. Throughout the film interviews with friends, industry professionals, and members of the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood crew talk about what it was like to take big topics in the headlines or in child development and talk about them on the show. They talk about what it was like to tackle the Vietnam War, the Challenger explosion, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. But they also show how Mr. Rogers would tackle things like death, divorce, and feeling different. The is a scene when Lady Aberlin and Daniel Tiger sing a duet about being different and that being okay which left me openly weeping.
I feel like since the 2016 election I have been more sensitive to the good in this world but also to the bad. Won’t You Be My Neighbor takes a look a truly good man and the profound effect he had on the lives of several generations of children. A friend in the film does ask if Mr. Rogers really made a difference with his show and I don’t know the answer. But he did try and that should be celebrated and cherished no matter what. It was refreshing and welcoming to sit for two hours and celebrate people for their differences and uniqueness rather than berate them and see them as ‘other’. We could all be kinder to our neighbors in this day and age and Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a good reminder of that. I cannot recommend this movie enough but you should have a good supply of tissues at the ready.