It’s easy to imagine all the ways that Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor could have gone wrong. A documentary about a guy who spent decades helping kids develop their emotional intelligence with a leisurely paced show filled with deceptively simple messages, skits and songs. A giant of children’s entertainment with an unparalleled reputation for decency. A man whose closets do not contain skeletons, whose feet are not made of clay. What stories can you tell about that man’s life?
This documentary treats him as more than a kids show host or a pop culture minister for late boomers and Gen X’ers. It treats him as an artist – we see him play (and appreciate) music, painstakingly develop the characters in the Land of Make Believe and take creative risks (by keeping his show slow paced, resisting trends and refraining from offering children cheap hope or easy answers). We observe his efforts to dig deeper with theme weeks on superheroes (exploring the line between fantasy and reality), conflict, violence death, and other sensitive subjects (like the Challenger tragedy or the terrorist attacks on 9/11).
The film celebrates his legacy but does not shy away from his quirks. We see his obsessive qualities, his discomfort with showing his anger, and the melancholy that occasionally seems to lurk under the surface. We hear stories of him using the voice of one of his characters when he wanted to say something that was ‘not Mr.Rogers like’.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor unpacks the philosophy behind the show. It illustrates how much thought and consideration went into every moment children saw on screen – from the rigid structure (and oft parodied routines) to the music choices, his deliberate use of silence and pace and the roles played by the recurring characters. Every element of the show was deliberately constructed – as one of Rogers’ collaborators shares, “there was no futzing around with the words”.
There is a sequence early in the film when Tom Junod (a journalist and one of Rogers’ friends) asks whether his attempt to influence America succeeded. It’s a scene that makes you think of the cruelty, disrespect, bigotry and selfishness that defines our political moment. There is one parallel that feels direct and deliberate – a clip when king Friday contemplates erecting a wall to keep enemies both real and imagined away from the kingdom. The problem is resolved by messages of love, a solution that feels impossible to imagine in our world.
But for the most part there are only allusions to the politics of today – the thoughtful kindness of Rogers’ art (produced by a person who was a lifetime registered Republican when that label meant something very different) serving as a silent rebuke to the reckless evil that we see all around us. We see a man persuade legislators with a passionate (and crafty) appeal to their better selves and wonder when (if?) we’ll live in a world where ideas and debate can inspire Congressional action.
There are three moments that brought tears to my eyes –
The first was the point in Rogers’ testimony when he quotes one of the songs from his show about “what do you do with the mad that you feel?”. He recites the lyrics in straight ahead, earnest fashion, building to an emphatic series of ‘stop’ – reminders that the person experiencing rage still has control over their actions. We hear (but don’t see) his hand hit the table with each ‘stop’, and though his expression is outwardly calm, his eyes are resolute and you can sense how strongly he feels about his life’s work. I was struck by the fact that he was explaining his approach to public television while sending a message to Congress – the angry child wasn’t the only one who could ‘stop when [they] want to’. He closed with a reminder that we should “know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can” and I felt my eyes well up.
The second was the duet between Lady Evelyn and Rogers as Daniel. It starts with Daniel sharing that he wondered whether he was a mistake. He breaks into song, confessing that he doesn’t feel like anyone else and wonders if he’s just a fake. The young woman assures him, tells him that he’s fine as he is. It’s something that I’ve seen before in art aimed at kids – the expression of doubt followed by assurances from a loved one or friend that feeling doubts is normal and its ok to be who you are. She emphatically sings ‘you’re not a fake, you’re no mistake, you are my friend’. The next moment hit me pretty hard. Daniel doesn’t acknowledge Lady Evelyn’s verse and repeats his own, a reminder of the stickiness of negative thoughts. Lady Evelyn doesn’t stop, and the two sing their verses in harmony. He doubts and she steadfastly supports him. The two resume speaking and she tells him that he is fine the way he is – the way he looks, the way he talks and the way he loves.
The third was a clip of the last commencement speech he gave at Dartmouth University, one in which he responded to those who believed that his efforts to remind people that they were special were a form of coddling. He said that it means that “you don’t ever have to do something sensational for people to love you”. It was a powerful moment.
The final scene did more than bring tears to my eyes. It included another clip of the Dartmouth speech when he talked about the people who’ve “smiled you into smiling”, “sung you into singing” and “loved you into loving”. He asked the audience to take a moment to think about those people and how they “encouraged you to be true to the best within you”. I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks when I closed my eyes and thought of all of the people who loved me and supported me over the years. The people who are still with me and those who have passed on. The people who showed me how to love and care for other people.
This is not a perfect documentary. Some of the transitions (such as the one between Rogers’ efforts to craft programming targeted to adult audiences and his ‘theme’ episodes are clunky and the animated transition sequences can be treacly. It’s still pretty moving, and not just because it reminds me that Fred Rogers was a nice guy with a pleasant tv show. A number of critics described Won’t You Be My Neighbor as a standard documentary about a fascinating subject. There’s a moment late in the documentary when the focus shifts from how Fred Rogers would respond to these changed times to how ‘you’ would respond. It’s the moment when I realized that the film was more than a tribute to Rogers, it was a reminder that his art and perspective on children and the world is still valuable today. We still need to respect childhood and think of children as more than future consumers. We still need to remember that “love is at the root of everything – all parenting, all relationships – love or the lack of it”.