Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
The new film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documents the life and career of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who devoted his life to making educational television programming for children. It is a documentary that will hit home for the generations that grew up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to a world that could use a little more kindness.
What is most evident from the documentary is just how daring and innovative the show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was for its time. Most of the now-adults who grew up watching the show when they were children, such as myself, probably mostly remember it as the show with the nice man who puts on a sweater and tennis shoes before whisking us away to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe where we were entertained by puppets and actors, sort of like a lower-budget Sesame Street. That was the basic format of the show, but this documentary reveals that it was so much more than just a puppet show.
Fred Rogers did not shy away from presenting challenging, grown-up topics on his show aimed at children. The show began at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 and was forthright in discussing the concept of war and explaining what that meant to its junior audience. Following the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the show spent a week on death. Throughout its entire run of over 1700 episodes, the show tackled subjects like divorce and racism. The show even wasted no time in tackling the fictional nature of superheroes following a rash of deaths of young children who thought they could fly like Superman out of their second-story windows following the release of the 1978 film. The show did not talk down to its audience when it came to these subjects, while still presenting them in a way that children could comprehend.
Rogers was also a hero off camera. When the government wanted to cut funding for public broadcasting in 1969, it was Rogers’ impassioned and heartfelt testimony before the Senate Subcommittee that convinced the committee chairman to declare “I think it’s wonderful,” and the congressional appropriation for PBS increased from $9 million to $22 million.
The film also documents the shocking backlash against Rogers and his programming. As a cynical society, it was believed impossible by some people that someone could be as good and as kind as Fred Rogers appeared to be; they insisted that there must be something wrong with him. Rumors began to spread that he was hiding a secret military past and that he had killed hundreds of people. It was also rumored that the reason he wore the sweaters was to hide his numerous tattoos. The most heartbreaking backlash was the insistence that his message to kids that they are each special in their own way led to a generation of young people who felt entitled and better-than-others. Protestors even showed up across the street from Rogers’ funeral in 2003, condemning him for his tolerance of homosexuality. And what broke his friends and mourners’ hearts about that the most is that there were children in attendance at the protest alongside their parents, a clear sign that the cycle of intolerance may never be broken.
Rogers was heartbroken that others would feel his message to kids that they were special had been a detriment more than an aid. He is on record in saying that when he tells kids they are special it is not that they should feel privileged or entitled, but that they should know that they “don’t need to do something spectacular to be loved.” Perhaps the most haunting moment in the film comes during an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when Daniel the Tiger sings the heartbreaking song “Am I a Mistake?” with Lady Aberlin. This question raised by the show’s most iconic puppet is one that Fred Rogers knows is felt by many children as they adjust to society. He knows this, because he not only talks to the children, but he listens to the children. And it is this horrifying fear that he wants to alleviate when he tells children that they are special.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does nothing flashy or resort to any tricks; it simply tells the story of Fred Rogers’ life and career in a straight-forward fashion. And it doesn’t need to resort to any tricks, because the subject matter is fascinating on its own. There are a few of the topics it speeds through that feel like they could have used a little more resolution, but that is bound to happen when you are telling a life story as full and compelling as Fred Rogers’ in only 94 minutes.
The most overheard question while leaving the showing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was “Did you cry?” It is not because the movie is aggressively manipulative, but rather because pretty much anyone watching the film between the ages of 20 and 50 likely shares some kind of emotional connection with Fred Rogers and his television programming. Watching this movie is like returning to the days when you were a kid, watching with the innocence of your youth at the same time that your adult brain is finally reaching an understanding of those messages you were being taught all those many years ago. And those messages and lessons are still important today, for both kids and adults. For that reason, even though documentaries are not usually the kinds of movies parents are taking their kids to the theaters to see, this is one that deserves to become the exception.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor opens today at the Regal Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle.