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The Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor feels radically subversive

The kindly children’s TV host was a man on a mission.

Fred Rogers (and Daniel Tiger) is the subject of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a new documentary.
Fred Rogers (and Daniel Tiger) is the subject of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a new documentary.
Focus Features
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Who among us can resist getting a little verklempt upon hearing the strains of some familiar Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood song? Hum with me:

It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive
It’s such a happy feeling, you’re growing inside
And when you wake up ready to say,
“I think I’ll make a snappy new day!”

Generations of American children now have grown up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in part because it runs on public television, something that Fred Rogers himself was instrumental in saving. Somewhere between a playmate, an affable uncle or grandpa, and a fairy godfather, Rogers’s slow and compassionate approach to children’s television ran counter to what we typically expect of TV shows for kids; there are no bright, flashy, fast-moving cartoons or slapstick humor in his neighborhood, just simple, direct conversation and storytelling. You got the feeling he cared.

Those same qualities might seem to disqualify Rogers from being a very good subject for a documentary, unless it’s the kind that “exposes” a public figure. But Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor tackles him anyway, and comes to the benign conclusion that Fred Rogers was, in fact, the guy he appeared to be. It’s a gentle film that doesn’t take a lot of risks but doesn’t really need to. Fred Rogers was a kind and gentle man who saw children as important, his work as ministry, and kindness as essential to human existence.

So the main goal of Won’t You Be My Neighbor is to convince us that while kindness and empathy are in short supply today, it need not be that way. Through interviews with Rogers’s close collaborators and friends (his wife, several performers, and the head of the Fred Rogers Center), archival footage (some of it rare), and interstitial animated segments, the film builds out a portrait of a man who saw in the new technology of television an opportunity to communicate with a generation of children and tell them that they were special just the way they were.

And in 2018, that makes him a subversive figure.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is less about Rogers himself than the worldview he embodied

The film opens with black-and-white footage of Fred Rogers in 1967, playing a piano and then using a musical metaphor to explain, in the familiar gentle cadence that somehow never comes off as patronizing, that one of his jobs is “to help children through the modulations of life.” What he means is helping children figure out how to express and regulate their emotions during exciting, scary, and confusing moments they encounter in life: dealing with bullies, experiencing parents’ divorce, feeling uncertain about the future, and going through frightening world events.

David Newell and Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor
David Newell and Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor.
Focus Features

That last one — the world events that children in the late 1960s and onward have had a greater awareness of, in part due to the very medium Rogers worked in — is a key part of Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet from Stardom) is less interested in giving us a straightforward cradle-to-grave account of Rogers’s life than in making an argument around his subject. That argument is that Fred Rogers’s worldview, a kind of humanism that had roots in Rogers’s Christianity but expressed itself as a commitment to everyone’s dignity, is what helped many navigate the scariest events of childhood (RFK’s assassination, the Challenger shuttle explosion). And the power of that worldview, the film suggests, doesn’t stop when childhood ends.

The film is structured around those big world events. The first episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired in 1968, amid heated political debates about borders and wars. On the show, King Friday (the stern monarch of the Land of Make-Believe) erected a border fence of his own around his castle, and was convinced to take it down only by messages of goodwill and peace that other characters (both puppet and human) floated over the fence.

The parallels are almost too obvious (a border wall in the first week, 50 years ago?), but this really was the way the show started, and the film carefully shows how Rogers went on to gently and subtly address other cultural battles. In one segment that aired during pitched battles about integration, he soaks his feet in a small wading pool outside his home, then invites the black policeman to cool his feet in the pool with him. Today, a shot of the two men’s feet in the same pool may register as little more than a nice image, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor splices the show’s footage together with images from that time of black children being chased out of a public pool. Rogers knew what he was doing.

Sections like this are the strongest in the movie, straightforwardly told with historical footage to contextualize the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood segments and to remind us what it was like, as children, to see an assassination or explosion on TV and wonder what it meant for the future. Rogers’s commitment to addressing these events is framed as stemming from two things: his Christian faith (he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and many interviewees talk about how he saw the show as “ministry”) and his deep interest in child psychology. Those two things led him to believe that children’s emotions were important to address and talk through, and he spent his life doing just that.

“The space between the TV screen and whoever is watching is ‘very holy ground,’” Rogers says in archival footage at one point.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor’s most startling element is how it affects viewers — and why

What’s so striking about Won’t You Be My Neighbor isn’t really onscreen, though. It’s the effect the film has on the audience, and what that reveals about us.

As a number of critics have noted, what’s so startling about the movie is the revelation that Mr. Rogers was, as far as anyone seems to be able to tell, basically the person he presented himself to be onscreen. And more importantly, that’s unexpected. Watching the film, it’s hard to believe it’s true. Even after seeing the film, it seems a bit suspect, as if a story of a hidden crime will eventually come to light if we just wait long enough.

That we expect this so keenly (and fear it just as sharply) tells you almost everything you need to know about the times we live in. And it’s reflective of a conversation that many women have been having during the era of #MeToo — making lists in private conversations of the men we know or respect whom we’d be shocked and genuinely devastated to discover were predators. They’re very short lists.

If as a nation we were to make one of those lists, Fred Rogers would almost certainly be on it. The man who told us through the TV every day when we were children about our own worth, about feeling our emotions and then learning to control them, about living in harmony with other people — we need that man.

Thankfully, what Won’t You Be My Neighbor turns up is just that man, and a crowd of people who loved him. That’s probably why just watching the trailer of the film can induce weeping: It’s jarring to realize how much his simple message still makes sense, and how little it is evident in our public life.

And maybe most uncomfortably, the film surfaces why. There’s a clip near the end of the film in which a talking head on Fox News decries Rogers and the “narcissistic society he gave birth to.” I briefly expected the audience at my screening to riot, because it was such a plainly stupid response to what we’d just seen.

Fred Rogers believed in radical kindness.
Fred Rogers believed in radical kindness.
Focus Features

But it’s also a good example of the confusion that marks public discourse today, in which kindness far too often is decried as weakness, courtesy as political correctness run amok, respect as pandering, and the belief in each individual’s dignity and worth as narcissism. These things can all go in toxic directions, of course. But it seems clear that ordinary, old-fashioned goodness has gone out of fashion.

Rogers, the film proposes, was interested in “making goodness attractive in this next millennium,” as he says in a PBS segment recorded late in his life. The idea that everyone has inherent dignity was obvious to him; if you say otherwise, for him, “you might as well go against the fundamentals of Christianity.”

After all, Jesus’s answer to someone who asked him “Who is my neighbor?” was to tell the story of the Good Samaritan, a parable in which the most “righteous” and powerful members of his own society passed by a man lying in a ditch on the side of the road. Who finally rescues him and cares for him? A Samaritan — the people whom Jesus’s listeners considered to be less worthy of dignity and respect than themselves. There’s no chance that Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, didn’t have this story in mind when he structured his entire show around the concept of neighbors.

And you can’t miss the parallels to today. Rogers was against the fast-paced children’s programming of his time that, as he saw it, found most of its humor in denigrating its characters’ dignity via pratfalls and cartoonish violence; it’s an easy line from that to the loud and shallow form that cable news uses to get its adult viewers addicted. Similarly, his slow, self-effacing, and deliberate way of speaking, with a gaze that made his audience certain he was paying attention only to them, is in stark contrast to all kinds of public figures today, not least the one leading our country.

So while Won’t You Be My Neighbor isn’t a particularly inventive film as a piece of cinema — its choices are expected, and we’re still left with questions about how Rogers’s work shaped his own life — that may in the end be for the best. The film succeeds on the radically subversive and obvious notions we learned when we were children: that being nice is not a weakness; that speaking with care is a thing we do simply because we believe the person we’re talking to is a human being with worth and dignity. What’s most startling about Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and what makes it feel almost elegiac, is how very jarring that message feels.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor opens in limited cities on June 8 and will expand over the following weeks.