Most of us recognize the opening lines of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the friendly familiarity of a man singing his way toward a closet where a suit jacket is exchanged for a colorful sweater and then outdoor shoes for indoor ones.
Fred Rogers was a revolutionary man for his time not just because of his show’s unsuspected success but because of his unfaltering belief that children’s emotions, experiences, and thoughts are just as deep and meaningful as those of adults. In fact, it was his gentle kindness that set the backdrop for many viewers’ early developmental years, and his way of telling the truth with tender honesty proved impactful for those children long after they had grown up and moved beyond Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. To some, he was even like a second father.
Looking back, it’s difficult to quantify Fred Rogers’ impact, to know exactly just how many people he touched in his lifetime, but it’s a task that filmmaker Morgan Neville (30 Feet From Stardom) has sought to uncover.
In his new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Neville utilizes decades of footage to honor a man who accomplished more than most of us remember with a resilience and authenticity stronger than that which he was often given credit for.
The result is a beautifully simple portrayal of a man who had the quiet audacity to challenge the status quo in everything he did.
In the opening scenes of the documentary, Neville reminds us of just how unlikely the success of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was. One man, unattractive by society’s standards, with a show that lacked the dramatic sets, slap-happy humor, and fast-paced action typical of other children’s shows should never have seen the viewership and growth that it did. But somehow, it exploded and Fred Rogers and his little show gained national attention.
Throughout his career, Rogers’ reach went far beyond the kids on his set and those sitting in front of televisions all across the United States; his deep love for people bled over into his staff and crew and the lives of every adult that he came in contact with. That legacy of steadfastness is celebrated in every scene of Won’t You Be My Neighbor with a sincere retelling that harkens to the Rogers’ character, making it entirely impossible to leave the theater with dry eyes.
But perhaps the most compelling part of Neville’s documentary was the glimpse he provided us into the internal struggles of the man who truly believed in his work but questioned its reach and impact, and sometimes even his own worth. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t just a job that Rogers went to every day and then left at the office for the few free hours he had at home before returning the next day. Rather, Rogers approached his work with genuine love and concern for America’s children, the kind of media they were digesting, who was influencing them, and what kind of conversations they were being invited into. Through footage spanning Rogers’ entire career paired with interviews from the people closest to him throughout it all, we get the chance to see how the convictions that motivated Rogers’ work also sometimes drove him into lonely sadness. Like many change agents deeply devoted to a cause, Rogers approached the end of his life and questioned whether his work had made any kind of difference at all.
Neville deserves a standing ovation for portraying such a tender profile of persistence amidst such deep internal struggle. For it’s often in seeing a humanitarian giant like Fred Rogers struggle that we’re able to acknowledge and celebrate his full humanity. And in that peak behind the curtain we discover that most of us are, in fact, not so different from each other. We all struggle. We all question our worth. And we’re all hoping that someone might one day lean over and tell us that he loves us just the way we are.