A good portion of the audience for Won't You Be My Neighbor? is trading on nostalgia -- a look back at a beloved public television show from their childhood. It's a little different with me: I never watched Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a child, and only knew about it as a snotty teenager who was obliged to look at it as this dorky, dumb TV show that was well past its prime.
I'm a lot older now, and feel a bit sad for that former teenage self, who was totally ignorant of what kind of impact Fred Rogers had on the lives of countless young children. This was a guy who was at once conservative and radical, genuinely reserved as well as extraordinarily open-hearted. This documentary, assuredly directed by Morgan Neville and expertly edited by Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden, captures all these elements of the man as well as anyone could hope for.
You know that meme we keep seeing on Facebook after all these national tragedies that now happen all too often? The one quoting Fred Rogers saying, "My mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" He really did say that. It was originally in a newspaper column rather than on his program, granted. But Won't You Be My Neighbor? also features audio of him talking about it.
Here was a man who taught the value of optimism in an uncertain world, who embodied moral certainty in times both bright and dark. He tackled surprisingly heavy topics within the very first week of his local public access show in Pittsburgh in 1968. By the eighties, his show tackled serious topics as a theme -- such as death -- for entire weeks.
Any time a profile like this comes along, of a public figure who so moved so many people in their youth, it begs the question: who in the world is in the public eye right now, who will be similarly revered twenty to fifty years from now? Who in today's world will find them approached by admirers in their twilight years, thanking them for the assurances they felt back in the twenty-tens? Can you think of anyone?
The thing is, Fred Rogers was an anomaly in his own time. Director Morgan Neville says Rogers reportedly stated any movie about his life would be incredibly boring. Neville begs to differ, but he still makes a wise choice by turning Won't You Be My Neighbor? less a straightforward biography of a man, and more "a movie about his ideas." And they are powerful, potent ideas, indeed. This is a man who offered kind words of comfort from his show's beginnings during the Vietnam War, clear until he was making post-9/11 PSAs.
Then again, nobody's perfect, I suppose: François Scarborough Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show, talks both about what a statement it was for Rogers to have a black man on his show, and about how when Rogers caught wind of Clemmons being seen at a local gay bar, he told Clemmons he could never go back there. As always, depending on the circumstances, you have to pick your battles. According to Clemmons, Rogers eventually came around, and accepted him exactly as he was -- something he had been saying directly to children on television for years.
In any case, even Fred Rogers had his weaknesses, and although it doesn't reveal a great many of them, they are acknowledged by this movie. The most important thing to learn from this portrait, however, is how pure of heart and generous the man really was: the question is posed whether he was the same in everyday life as he was on the show. (You can guess the answer.) Rogers was a man who led by example, a model of tolerance for alternate ways of thinking. He had compassion to spare, especially for children -- so much so that, unless you're soulless and dead inside, you're going to need tissues handy when watching this movie. I got teary several times.
Others featured talking about the man with predictable fondness include musician and show guest Yo-Yo Ma; former crew members on the show, including David Newell, who worked behind the scenes at first and wound up with a regular part as Mr. McFeely; and Fred's widow, Joanne Rogers, to name just a few out of many. They all have deep love and respect for the man, which Won't You Be My Neighbor? makes clear was well earned.
Opens locally in Seattle Friday, June 15.