Directed by Morgan Neville, who gave us the stirring 50 Feet from Stardom, his new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? focuses on the life of the remarkable Fred Rogers, a children’s TV personality, musician, writer, puppeteer (and more) who presented Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a show that ran in North America from 1968 to 2001. If you’re outside of the top half of that continent then you might not be familiar with Mr Rogers, I have to admit growing up in the UK I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing his work, but with a global spread of friends, and a Canadian in my life, I’ve been aware of the huge impact he had on countless childhoods across the Pond.
Fred Rogers was, and will always be, a categorically exceptional human being who seemed to live outside of his time and more aptly, ahead of his time. His show wasn’t a normal kid’s programme for the era, it did something different. Instead of silliness and laughter tracks, it relied on telling the truth to children but in unique, creative way. While the TV he saw was full of violence and fast-paced visuals, Fred wanted to create something on the television that spoke to children as individuals and he wasn’t afraid to tackle huge, real subjects such as racism, death or divorce. While this might sound depressing, it wasn’t because his openness and intelligent storytelling (with puppetry) meant he could captivate children in a way other shows couldn’t.
Neville’s documentary uses archive footage of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood alongside interviews with Fred, who sadly died in 2003, plus interviews with his wife, his sons, those who starred in the show, plus those he worked with day-to-day. It’s clear that Rogers became an inimitable voice with something significant to say and, best of all, people listened and when they did, felt a deep level of connection. What I wasn’t ready for was the emotional impact of someone whom I never watched as a kid, nor learned about properly until watching Neville’s film. I think it says a lot for Fred Rogers’ philosophies on life that even a documentary that’s recounting stories of his legacy can make such an impression.
While Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does reveal some sadness underneath Fred’s image, as he wasn’t always sure he was doing the right thing with his life or doing enough, it’s clear that everything he strived to be and project as a personality made a difference. His messages of goodness, of equality, of being kind were vital and, in truth, reminded me that it’s something often overlooked, especially today. With that in mind, the documentary teaches us of the nature of compassion and how we shouldn’t forget what it does, which is positive in this unsettling era.
Fred Rogers was so far ahead of his time, it’s actually incredible. The charming, noble and soft-spoken man not only shared the reflective thoughts he held dear but he also encouraged others to be themselves and, most importantly, reminded children (and adults) that being themselves was okay. And that’s so true, even today.
Overall, I found it all utterly captivating and I have to end with a thought for you to ponder, which is echoing the thoughts of Mr Rogers himself: Just spend one minute of your time thinking of someone who did something good for you in your life or pushed you towards good changes. (And my addition) If you can’t, at this moment, then why not challenge yourself to do something good for someone else out there, maybe you haven’t met them yet, but you might and if you do, be kind. Suggest they can be whoever they are, and that’s brilliant. Just think, if this film can continue his incredible work, what a glorious legacy that would continue to be.