Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes us back to an honest-to-God simpler time, when the idea of a minister with an “abiding interest in children,” as one newscaster describes Rogers in the doc, didn’t immediately raise eyebrows. Early in the film, the late Rogers — whose legendary children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, aired for more than 30 years starting in 1968 — expresses his desire to help children make sense of the world “through the mass media.” He made this comment back when television was still a fairly newfangled technology, and when a few well-intentioned folks like Mr. Rogers thought to use “mass media” to spread wholesome education rather than dogged consumerism.
Through archival footage of Rogers both on and off the set of his iconic show, as well as interviews with his family, friends and former crew members, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? draws a flattering yet complex portrait of its subject, who died of cancer in 2003. What is most remarkable is Rogers’ grasp, even in the medium’s nascent years, of how television can shape young minds. “What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become,” he insisted. Rogers understood, earlier than most, that television — that oh-so-intimate medium that catches us at home, unguarded, the screen perhaps just inches away from our faces — profoundly alters the way we see each other and ourselves. “Television,” young Rogers argued, “has the chance of building a real community out of an entire country.”
This line is one of many in director Morgan Neville’s film that may resonate with contemporary viewers; TV executives today seem to have concluded that dividing people is more profitable than uniting us. The documentary doesn’t hit us over the head with such contrasts, but they’re hard to miss. An ordained minister, young Fred Rogers was all set to join the seminary when he discovered the magic of television, which he felt could be a “wonderful tool” — if used right. The film doesn’t explicitly state this, but its implication is that in the years since Rogers’ show went off the air, in 2001, we’ve been using the medium all wrong; after all, we have television to blame for President Trump.
The period when Rogers was getting turned on to the educational potential of the medium, in the 1950s, coincided with a general cultural and scientific interest in early childhood development, and one talking head describes Rogers as an “evangelist for television.” Rogers deeply disliked the cartoon violence that comprised most children’s programming, and he resented how TV was seen as a way to raise good consumers rather than good people. He felt that most series aimed at young people didn't respect the fragile and formative period of childhood.
His show would correct that, and then some. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t political, but it was reactive. In 1969, when stories of black bathers being kicked out of public pools abounded, Rogers — a lifelong Republican — invited Officer Clemmons, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’s black police officer character, to join him in a soothing foot bath. In the show’s first week, Rogers took on the Vietnam War; when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, he calmly but directly explained that, too. As soothing as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood could be, it never shied away from the realities of life and death. In one sequence featured in the documentary, Rogers scoops out a dead fish from his tank, places it on a paper towel and, after letting the camera linger on its tiny silver corpse, buries it in the set’s “backyard.”
Unlike most TV made for kids, Rogers’ program was slow and contemplative. In one episode, he takes an egg timer and simply lets it run for 60 seconds, in order to demonstrate how long a minute is; in another, he silently changes a lightbulb. Watching footage of it now, I was struck with how tactile Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was. There were no special effects that couldn’t be achieved live on a stage, no digital magic used to create even Rogers’ Land of Make Believe. And yet the show did transport viewers — children and otherwise — to a special place.
As complimentary as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is, it’s not hagiographic. Rogers, we’re told by the friends and family who’ve outlived him, really was “like that” in real life — slow, patient, kind. But he, too, was human, and he struggled with issues of self-esteem and even depression; he used his talking-animal puppet, Daniel, as a surrogate for his most vulnerable self. Francois Clemmons, the actor who played Officer Clemmons, confesses that when he was spotted at a gay bar downtown by a crew member of the show, the news traveled to Rogers, who told him not to go there anymore lest the show lose sponsors. Eventually, Clemmons recalls, Rogers came to accept him just as he was.
The documentary is ultimately bittersweet, because it highlights just how alien Fred Rogers’ philosophy of television has become today. But the film also functions as a gentle rallying cry — a call not to let our mass media alienate us, but to use it to look each other in the eyes and really see each other. In the face of unnerving political turmoil like we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s tempting to throw up our hands and declare that there’s just nothing we can do. But Rogers might insist that there is something we can do (besides vote, which I’m certain he would’ve advocated): We can treat the people around us with dignity and respect. We can be good neighbors.