Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a documentary about Fred Rogers and viewers should be expected to be wildly emotional by the time the film ends.
In 1967, Fred Rogers was quoted on camera as saying one of his jobs was “to help children through the difficult modulations in life.” Oh, did he ever. It’s from here that Morgan Neville’s brilliant documentary goes straight into the theme song of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. This is where the film goes from slightly emotional to super emotional. Rogers, an ordained minister, was a television stronghold nationally from 1968 through 2001. Before that point, Rogers would contribute in some capacity to the Pittsburgh-based WQED. Nobody wanted to do a children’s program at the time but he thought it would be a great idea.
“Television has a chance of building a real community out of an entire country,” Rogers once said. This was before the advent of social media where television, movie, and sports fandoms have brought people together online.
Rogers would use the program to preach inclusiveness and acceptance. He did so in a way that wasn’t so oratory as other television evangelists. He also did it in a way that didn’t make him come off like a preacher. Perhaps this is why Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood could appeal to Jewish viewers such as myself.
To help appeal to the program’s young viewers, Rogers would change into a sweater during the start of every program as he sang the opening tune. This speaks to the beauty of the long-running program. He helped educate young viewers about what was happening around them in the world. The national debut came during the tumultuous year of 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War. The same year would see the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Rogers used a conversation between Daniel Striped Tiger and Lady Aberlin to discuss Kennedy’s death. Tiger himself represented Rogers’ own fears, anxiety, and feelings during his childhood.
Rogers was the type of person who believed that “love is at the root of everything.” A lifelong Republican, Rogers believed that people were special and should be accepted for who they are. Despite what he believed, there were some things that he could not allow on the program for fear of losing sponsors. One such case included Francois Clemmons, who portrayed the neighborhood officer. As long as Clemmons appeared on the series, he could not live a public life as a gay man.
For what it is worth, Clemmons’ sexuality didn’t stop Rogers from using his platform to speak out against racism. When you’re famous and have a voice, you use it! This is exactly what Rogers decided to do on the program. By inviting Clemmons to cool his feat off in a small tub of water, Rogers was making his statement. This was during a time when people of color weren’t allowed in the same pools as white people.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Fred Rogers documentary without a focus on spoofs. You know you’re famous when the comedy shows run satirical sketches. Saturday Night Live did this in the form of Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood. There was one with Johnny Carson during his run on The Tonight Show. There was an SCTV sketch featured with Rogers in the boxing ring.
Fred Rogers passed away in February 2003 but as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows, his legacy will live on forever.
DIRECTOR: Morgan Neville
FEATURING: Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, John Rogers, Jim Rogers, David Newell, Francois Clemmons, Susan Stamberg, Tom Junod, Yo-Yo Ma