Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? begins with that instantly recognizable face and that warm, familiar voice. In a 1967, black-and-white interview, Fred Rogers sits at a piano and explains, through a bit of music theory, his life’s mission of helping kids learn how to deal with the “difficult modulations of life.” This is, of course, an admirable enterprise. Everyone wants kids to grow into kindhearted individuals who will eventually make the world a better place. But for many hardened adults in 2018, sitting down for a documentary about Fred Rogers may mean harboring some intense skepticism of his earnest approach to storytelling and child rearing, and its effectiveness. Or maybe an underlying suspicion that it was all a cleverly constructed ruse, that maybe the cardiganed icon wasn’t as patient and caring and sensitive to others’ needs as he appeared to be. Could it really be that we’ve finally found a fave who wasn’t problematic?
Yet to experience Won’t You Be My Neighbor? through to its conclusion is to slowly let one’s guard down bit by bit, song by song, until you may find yourself slumped down in your seat, searching for tissues. Spoiler: It turns out Fred Rogers was a wholesome, nice, and generous person. There’s no bombshell to be found here, no #MeToo-like revelations or even a sense that there was a totally different man hiding behind the curtain. By all accounts (admittedly, most of them come from those who have an interest in preserving his legacy, such as his widow and sons and the co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, Junlei Li), Rogers was in private who he presented himself to be in public. Instead, the third-act reveal is that his persona also came, in his later years, with a flipside of self-doubt and disappointment, even a bit of cynicism. This might seem a quaint revelation, but it proves to be a powerful one. Learning that even Mr. Rogers questioned whether one man could make a difference is both heartening and saddening, enough to bring out in the viewer an overwhelming mix of emotions.
Neville (who also directed the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom) seeks to continue the work that has been done in the years since Rogers’ death in 2003 to preserve his legacy and recontextualize Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. While chronicling Rogers’ life from his lonely childhood growing up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to his later years as a TV star, the director includes plenty of things that are easily Google-able and may already be familiar: the famous clip of Rogers melting the icy heart of Sen. John O. Pastore with an impassioned testimony for public television, the convincing arguments that the educator was more radical than our memory of him suggests—such as in his symbolic advocacy for racial integration by inviting François Clemmons, the black actor who played Officer Clemmons, to soak his feet alongside him in a kiddie pool.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? resists turning into a full-on hagiographic exercise, however, even when it occasionally teeters close to it. Clemmons is gay, and he recalls a time when someone in a gay bar recognized him from the show and the word got back to Rogers. Rogers told Clemmons that he could not frequent such establishments any longer, out of fear that the show could be canceled because of it—which was in all likelihood true for that era, though it also demonstrates the limitations of Rogers’ own progressivism. (Clemmons, who saw Rogers as a father figure, says the TV host never took issue with his sexuality, while Rogers’ widow says they had close friendships with gay people.) Some of the people interviewed note that Rogers seemed to become increasingly curmudgeonly in his later years, railing even harder against violence in children’s television. (His adopted sister, Elaine Crozier—whom Fred named the puppet character Lady Elaine after—says that his personality shifted from aligning with the shy Daniel Striped Tiger to the imperious King Friday.)
A key moment comes toward the end of the film, when Rogers returns from retirement to shoot a special PSA addressing the anniversary of 9/11. As he had done many times before (following the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, the Challenger explosion in 1986), he attempted to provide comfort and understanding to viewers, especially children, in the aftermath of a horrid event. Only this time, behind the scenes, he appeared to feel defeated. “I just don’t know what good this is going to do,” one colleague recalls him saying.
This departure into pessimism from someone whose persona is normally so cheery is heartbreaking to witness, but it also serves as the key to rendering Rogers fully human. It makes his compassionate endeavors seem easier to aspire to. He was never so optimistic as to be naïve of the world around him. One can only imagine how he might feel if he were around today, and the film subtly draws on our contemporary political climate without leaning heavily into it. It’s easy to wonder whether he was in fact right to doubt whether a soft-spoken man who interacted with children as though they were his equals could really quell racism or the rise in mass shootings or the swell in hate surrounding the 2016 election. (After examining one storyline on the show in which King Friday’s misplaced fear of others leads him to build a wall around his kingdom, one interviewee notes that it aired during the show’s first week.)
But then you view in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? those groundbreaking interactions Rogers had with an untold number of kids, the connections he made with those who looked like him and those who didn’t, and his simple but important philosophies about respecting one another (“I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved exactly as he is”). And it becomes even clearer that Rogers did a lot of good indeed and changed many lives, even if the world remains a bitter, difficult one for many. Fred Rogers may seem out of place in 2018, but that only makes this movie more timely.