Documentary Review -Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.

Fred Rogers and his television program Mister Rogers Neighborhood have been a consistent staple in the lives of children for decades. I did not grow up watching this childhood favorite. Still I remained aware of the identity of Mr. Rogers and the influence of his show.

It’s not often I have the opportunity to watch a documentary in my small city. As I am a fan of ordinary, everyday heroes, I knew I had to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? when it actually came to my local theater.

This documentary, produced with care and respect, is a beautiful portrait of a man who dedicated his life to the education of children. Whereas we generally think of education as facts and dates we learn in school, Fred Rogers chose to educate the hearts and souls of children as to the truth of their identity.  Much like the famous quote from the film The Help, “you is smart, you is kind, you is important” Fred’s mission was to teach children to believe that same truth.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? gives us a glimpse at the man behind the screen. As everyone who knew him attests, he was the same off screen as he was on; patient, kind, thoughtful and loving. But Fred Rogers was also more; creative, gutsy, and even self-doubting. Different aspects of his character were reflected in the various puppets he used in Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Daniel Tiger was a reflection not only of Fred’s childhood self, but also of the doubts and questions of all children.

I learned so many fascinating things about Fred Rogers and his show from this film. I didn’t realize that Mr. Rogers often addressed news headlines on his shows. He believed that children deserved an explanation and an outlet for their questions. I was also surprised to learn how he almost singlehandedly saved PBS from extinction when budget cuts during Nixon’s Presidency threatened its’ existence. His defense in a public hearing was both respectful and moving. It shocked me to learn how many people attacked the message of his show towards the end of his career. Some felt that his words to children about being special and loved just as you are bred a generation of entitled adults. I found this sad for a man who had dedicated his life to building children’s self-esteem and confidence.

I never knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. The documentary not only touches on his faith but reflects it as the foundation of all that he did. Several times, Mr. Rogers mentions that love is the basis and foundation for everything. This belief is at the heart of everything he did and said, not only in his show, but also in his life. It is this faith and love which motivated him to treat everyone regardless or age, race, gender or sexuality with the same regard and kindness.

Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.

One of the things that really impressed me about Fred Rogers is his ability to really listen to people. It is very rare in today’s world to find someone who will give their full attention and make eye contact in a conversation. He gifted everyone with both plus a true interest in understanding them.  He never judged what he heard or argued his own opinion. He simply listened in a way that showed he cared.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? includes interviews and reflections of Fred’s family, friends and co-workers. These include his wife, two sons, his sister and even his famous friend, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Their reflections added so much to revealing Fred’s true nature and motivations. The parents of one of Mr. Rogers’ child guests also appear. I only wish that there had been more interviews with children whose lives were impacted by his show. Of course, there are many clips of Fred himself and I enjoyed hearing from him at different stages of his life.  The documentary follows Fred’s life in a linear manner from childhood to death at the same, steady, constant pace that Fred spoke.  It managed to maintain my interest throughout and did even better at engaging my emotions. There were several times I found myself in tears.

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend that you watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. It is an accurate depiction of a revered public figure with a simple but powerful message. His show, like his life, consistently reflected that love.

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