It’s become increasingly hard to believe that good exists in the world. The oppressive cloud of strategic non-truths and hatred masquerading as political ideology has made each day a struggle for grownups. I can only imagine what it’s like for children, who shouldn’t have to deal with such things so early in life. It makes me wish more than ever we had someone like Fred Rogers to talk to the younger generation and make them understand that there’s always someone trying to help. Rogers, the writer/director/host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was a pure force for positiveness, and seeing Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? truly cements how important his legacy is.
Between 1968 and 2001, the world was all the better for the existence of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a show that essentially saved PBS from government cuts early in its infancy, and one that, to quote a speaker in the documentary, was the opposite of everything that typically makes good television: it was slow, it was quiet, it had a host who was not particularly suited to public speaking. Yet the series gave children an outlet for their feelings, and someone telling them it was okay to feel that way. The documentary explores the birth of that series, and in doing so propels the ethos Rogers himself believed in so strongly. I defy anyone to watch it without tearing up at least once.
The film deftly flows between beautiful original footage of the series and archival interviews with Rogers, castmates, and friends to weave a picture of the man’s life and times. We learn how the different beloved characters in his Neighborhood of Make Believe were born, starting with Daniel Striped Tiger. Rogers did the voice of just about every puppet on the series, and the little morality plays they enacted five days a week gave children different examples of how to cope with various emotions, including in several cases the fear of war and murder—whatever was going on in the real world.
Rogers’ inherent kindness is palpable in every frame, as is the passion with which he believed children needed a safe place, not one populated by fictional accounts of violence when the real world was already so dark and dangerous. Neville certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the man, and it’s actually rather heartening to hear of his downfalls in certain areas, but to know that he was at heart trying to do right by the kids watching, to whom he felt he had a duty of care, and was enraged when children were mistreated by television programs, it’s endlessly endearing.
The doc also deals a bit with the backlash against the Mister Rogers ethos towards the end—that he was somehow responsible for the “snowflake”-ifying of the world—but comes down fully on the side of his show and that approach to rearing children is a net positive for the mental health of the young and impressionable.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a beautiful documentary about a man who seemed anathema to the idea of television entertainment at the time, and I can only imagine how he’d be viewed today. But we need a Mister Rogers today, a tiny ray of hope and understanding in the midst of so much frothing anger and persecution. Anyone under the age of 17 was born into a world without Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and that’s a truth I certainly wish were make believe.
Images: Focus Features