Movie Review (WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?)

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (released in 2018) is a documentary about the power of unconditional love. The vehicle of this precious attribute was the multi-talented Fred Rogers. I am so grateful I got to watch Mr. Rogers on public television through much of my childhood, but especially from ages three/four to five-and-a-half. I realized while watching this movie last night that his loving presence combined with that of my maternal grandmother are what kept me going with a sense of hope and feeling loved through hard times, namely my parents divorcing and the fall-out of that over a period of years.

The movie is comprised of footage from the long-running television show MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD, alternating with interview moments of him, his wife, and a handful of associates who worked with Fred on the series, which ran a record 31 seasons, ending in December of 2000. His son, a sister-in-law, and some of the show’s former guests (or proxies for them) are interviewed as well, such as the parents of a severely physically challenged boy who starred in an episode. The way everyone spoke of Mr. Rogers affirmed his genuineness of being warm, loving, and astute about the human condition. An ordained Presbyterian minister also educated in child development by training, Fred Rogers lived his Christianity the way I understand that particular faith should be lived: love everyone as they are, always. Even his own son, who appears in the film, speaks kindly about the man.

There is some exposition about Fred Rogers’s upbringing and background, which was wealthy and privileged but lonely. A heavy-set, soft-spoken, and often sickly child, he was bullied yet left alone with his grief. While often sick in bed with an ailment, such as scarlet fever, Fred’s imagination made his bed covers a landscape of characters, his legs mountains or hills. Some simple but lovely animation created expressly for the movie fills in this part of the narrative.

The wealth of creative imagination Fred Rogers expressed made his core message of love and let live vibrant and relatable. His Neighborhood of Make Believe, a room of puppets mostly voiced and hand-held by Mr. Rogers, was basically a microcosm of the world at large. There, he allegorically grappled with social and personal issues, such as resistance to socio-economic change, the pain of war, racism, divorce, low self esteem, etc.

He also addressed these challenging concerns as himself in his studio “home.”  The episode of Mr. Rogers cooling his feet off in a plastic wading pool along with Officer Clemmons, an African American policeman (played by singer and actor Francois Clemmons), still moves me to this day. At the time of filming this scene in early 1969, black people were continuing to be discriminated against for using swimming pools shared by whites. The actual Francois looks into the camera and tearfully explains how Fred was a surrogate father for him, his own dad and stepfather being unavailable/unconnected while he was growing up. Like me, Francois Clemmons is an out gay man, which Fred knew about and accepted. My child intuition was affirmed; he truly did like me just the way I am.

I am heartened that this documentary was made and that a dramatization (A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD) about Fred Rogers has soon followed. His legacy is invaluable, a tenderly expressed candor, understanding of, and caring for children and overall humanity that rises to the level of evolvedness many would equate with sainthood or that of a bodhisattva. His ever-gentle voice– spoken and in song– and frequent piano playing relayed love rarely heard and felt so deeply and broadly from one person. I know because I myself directly benefitted from them.

Since Fred Rogers’s death in 2003, I am not aware of a person who has stepped into his shoes on television or online, someone to mitigate for children, especially, the onslaught of over-stimulating imagery and cacophony of words in the media. He was a grounding, soothing voice of calm and inherent goodness that the world continues to so badly need. At least there are ongoing moving images of Mister Rogers to watch, listen to, and pass on to today’s children. And therein lies some comfort.

4 thoughts on “Movie Review (WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?)

  1. I think someone recently posted this movie on a website I frequent. My familiarity with Mr. Rogers came from my children and grandchildren watching on occasion. I remember the gentleness he displayed with all the characters and feeling a sense of such sadness. I am not sure why. Perhaps, it was wistfulness. The showing of tenderness from those who are so fortunate to have the ability to do so brings that same feeling. Thank you for reminding me of just how important it is to cultivate and pass on those special feelings to those we love. His show was one I never had to worry about letting the kids watch on their own. After reading this wonderful critique, I will have to check it out. Thank you for sharing your memories of such an influential man who brought such joy to so many children and it seems, adults, too!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There is indeed a feeling of wistfulness for me as well when I watch him. I think I felt it as a child viewing his show, though I didn’t have the word for what the feeling was and is.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this review and feel inclined to check out the movie. Enjoy and feel heartened. (And we could sure use more heartening these days.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Even at my age I can watch Mr. Rogers and feel comfort. Fred Rogers fanned a spark of hope in me–even at age 3–that this world could be a good place, and it might be okay for me to live in it. I loved Mr. Rogers thoroughly. I used to kiss him goodbye on the TV at the end of the show, feeling so sad that I couldn’t see him again until the next airing. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that he is one of the main reasons I’m still in this world and still believing in the goodness of people despite so much evidence to the contrary.

    I don’t quite know why so many people maligned him. I don’t know about you, but as I got older, it became clear that admitting I watched the show, much less that I loved him, made me a target for terrible teasing. Hearing what people said about him really hurt. I’ve never understood why people turn against those who are wholly open and kind and good.

    I was grateful the show still aired in reruns when my children were young. There wasn’t much out there–even on PBS–that could hold a candle to the depth and breadth of children’s experience as his program, and none managed to evoke the intimacy of the parent/mentor/ to child that he did.

    Am I being hagiographic? Maybe. But as you point out in your precis of the documentary, Fred Rogers was the real thing. A truly good person. I really enjoyed the documentary, and I cannot wait to see the new film. It will be disturbing to see an actor playing Mr. Rogers, but I think Tom Hanks might just pull it off.

    I’m always so happy when I find another person who connected to Mr. Rogers. He truly made a profound difference in so many children’s lives. I’ll look forward to reading your review of the film!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I was an adolescent, I went through a period of thinking Mr. Rogers was not cool. Because of my own self hatred at the time and a desperate wish to fit in within an almost entirely white and conservative school (and small back country town) during this period in my life, I went along with many of my peers’ view that he was gay, juvenile, and stupid– with “gay” meaning bad and inferior, as coming across at all as traditionally “feminine” was inferior for men and automatically an indication of being homosexual. I’m glad I grew out of such stunted, fear-based thinking and returned to appreciating how and why I loved Fred Rogers so much in the first place. But, toxic masculinity and homophobia are a bad, dangerous mix, and tend to especially come to the fore during adolescence. At least that was my observation and experience while growing up. What I hope is that others get through this seemingly culturally-imposed phase (dovetailing with natural, vulnerable adolescence), as I did, and come back to valuing the inherent greatness of Mr. Rogers. I am glad he is being celebrated in film and books as the modern American bodhisattva of sorts that he is.

      Like

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