Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not what I would call a traditional documentary, both for better and for worse. Naturally, there are archived clips of the eponymous Fred Rogers taped before his death in 2003, which include interviews and footage from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Of course, there are Q&A sessions with family and friends; however, these are set at an unconventional angle, such that it appears they are directly addressing the audience. There are insights, backstories, emotional anecdotes, and more than a few teary eyes. However, the film seems far more interested enshrining Mr. Rogers as the model pacifist, parent, and teacher than it is in uncovering any untold stories that may have been lost to the annals of history during his nearly thirty-five-year tenure on television.
That is not to say, by any means, that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? seeks to deify its host; more so that it seems to have come up against an astonishing lack of negative things to say about the man. Much, if not all, of the film’s 94-minute runtime is devoted to just how unashamedly positive, bold, friendly, and loving Fred Rogers genuinely was. Even so, he is never portrayed as more than human. He had doubts, but overcame them with conviction. He faced obstacles, but conquered them with determination. He was a man who knew what he believed, what he wanted, and the way he wanted the world to look.
In this sense, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a triumphant, enlightening, melancholic, but ultimately hopeful ode to a man who touched upon and impacted innumerable lives. For my own part, I learned a great many things about Fred Rogers and his show that I’d never been exposed to, despite growing up as his fictional neighbor. I had no idea that he was instrumental in saving PBS from Nixon-era budget cutting. I was woefully unaware of how many difficult themes he tackled head-on, such as death, grief, loss, fear, and even assassination. I had never learned that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, or that the puppet for Daniel Tiger was first seen during an ad-lib to cover for faulty footage on his first TV program: The Children’s Corner.
These details, as well as first-person accounts of his kindness and demeanor, served to transform Fred Rogers from a soft-spoken celebrity of years past into a rare, goodhearted human being in my mind’s eye. To me, Mr. Rogers was just always there. In fact, my older brother’s first attempt at speech was a baby-talk version of his name, while pointing at the TV screen. I had never really considered what the man was like off camera, the same way a child rarely expects that the Mickey Mouse they meet at Disney World will soon be headed backstage for a smoke. To be told that he was just as good a person as I’d been led to believe felt amazing. To know that despite his success and singular vision he too sometimes felt lost and scared for the future helped me connect with him in a way he likely never intended. Even so, how is it possible that this particular Mickey Mouse never, not even once, slipped out of his costume when no one was looking?
This is the only place in which Won’t You Be My Neighbor? falters, and then only theoretically. It seems as if one of two things happened: either Fred Rogers was the same genuine, caring man both on and off camera to such a degree that nobody outside of right-wing media outlets had anything negative to say about him, or the filmmakers were hesitant to sully the image of such a beloved figure with any potential weaknesses of character.
The only situation that hints at the latter being any truer than the former concerns his handling of a homosexual cast member. Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, was a closeted homosexual and was encouraged by Mr. Rogers not to come out as openly Gay, lest valuable sponsors such as Johnson & Johnson drop their support for the show. The filmmakers and Mr. Clemmons himself take pains to make it abundantly clear that Rogers was nothing if not supportive and accepting in private, but the fact remains that he acted directly against the universal love that he attempted to curate week after week.
From a business perspective, this is totally understandable (if not forgivable) given the context of the time period. Furthermore, I can hardly stand in judgment of a documentary for revealing an unsavory fact about a man I’ve looked up to since childhood. That having been said, the topic was given little time in the spotlight and was never presented as a failing on Rogers’ part, moral or otherwise. It’s concerning to think that a documentary would sacrifice objectivity to preserve the borderline unassailable image of a man known for his kind and loving nature rather than simply accepting his actions as a mistake, and using that understanding to paint a more complete picture.
This issue aside, the film humanizes Mr. Rogers in a vital, illuminating way. It aligns the audience with the purity of his desires and dreams, and reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago when an older white man in a cardigan talking to kids with puppets and telling them how much he loved them was the farthest thing from creepy. It shows us the value of kindness, love, and understanding. It tells parents that they’re no more correct to pander to their children than they are to discount the depth of their emotions.
In many ways, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a film of which I suspect Fred Rogers would be proud. It is never blindly optimistic, and fully acknowledges the darkness present in our lives and our world, and does so frankly, just as Mr. Rogers did. And yet, it still feels like the warmest, most necessary hug you’ve ever been too scared to ask for. The world can be a terrifying place, and to believe that a man as kind of heart and pure of intention as Mr. Rogers could exist is heartening, and just plain feels good. The question of whether you ought to be thankful for his influence on today’s world or weeping for his absence in tomorrow’s, though, may stick with you long after the credits roll.