After twice arriving at a small theater only to find lines curving out the door, Stephanie and I finally managed to score the hottest ticket in town: Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Okay, maybe it’s not a summer blockbuster, but we were pretty impressed to see such large turnouts for a documentary.
However, when you think about it, it really isn’t that surprising. The subject is Mr. Rogers, not exactly a no-name. The director isn’t a no-name either, having been behind the Academy Award-winning 20 Feet from Stardom. But more than anything, people are desperate for something that shows us a better vision of humanity, which was the philosophy Fred Rogers built his entire career upon. The filmmakers seemed to share a similar desperation, resulting in a portrait of Mr. Rogers that is moving but also troubling in its glaring absences.
The movie opens with Mr. Rogers sharing his views on creating television for children: “What we see and hear on the screen is a part of who we become.” Right off the bat, we recognize how he was ahead of his time in his understanding of how media shapes us. He paused his plans to become an ordained minister because of his realization of the sacred role of television, especially in influencing children.
In an article about the documentary for the Chicago Sun Times, Michael G. Long points out that his message corresponded with an old school vision of Christianity that proclaims the value of the weak, poor and marginalized. Mr. Rogers put this vision into action in his tireless devotion to children. It’s impossible not to be moved by clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which he gives children his unwavering attention, speaking earnestly with them about everything from death to war. Every detail of his show is carefully constructed, not to chase ratings, but to open the minds of children, validate their feelings and reaffirm their worth. And if his kindness towards children wasn’t enough, the film also shows his dedication to world peace and civil rights. He became the ultimate evangelist for goodness.
But is anyone really that perfect? This film deepens our understanding of Rogers, cleverly using an animated version of his puppet Daniel Striped Tiger to illustrate his insecurities rooted in the multiple illnesses and bullying of his childhood. However, it never really shows his weaknesses, even going so far as to include a scene of his son referring to Rogers as the second coming.
The closest we get to an uncovering of his faults evaporates as soon as it appears. François Clemmons, Mr. Rogers’ longtime co-star, describes the difficulty of hiding his homosexuality throughout his tenure on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers told him that he couldn’t be openly gay while working on his show, and Clemmons struggled with staying in the closet, including a failed marriage.
But immediately after his account, we hear from Rogers’ wife, Joanne, about his later support of the LGBT community and how the couple had several gay friends, and Clemmons sings Rogers’ praises throughout the duration of the movie. This is not to say that the film should’ve maligned his treatment of Clemmons, but it could’ve served as an opportunity to explore the difficulty of compromising some progressive values to promote other important messages without alienating conservative audiences.
My criticism is rooted in the Me Too movement, which has shed a disturbing light on many of our heroes. Growing up, I was honestly bored with Mr. Rogers and his plain cardigans; instead, I devoured every episode of The Cosby Show and Bill Cosby’s outrageous sweaters. Because of his reputation as America’s father, nobody heeded decades of rape allegations from multiple women. We chose to discredit so many women for so long because of our belief in the myth of the all-wonderful Cosby. It served as a lesson to the world—our heroes might not be who we think they are.
This is by no means to suggest that Rogers has any skeletons in his closet as horrific as Cosby’s, or even that he’s a perv covered in tattoos from the Navy as many of my douchier high school peers used to insist. It’s merely to point out that we’ve long cultivated a troubling tendency to regard pop culture icons as perfect specimens. We can honor what Rogers stood for and recognize his amazing contributions to children’s television without placing him on a pedestal and ignoring his blemishes. Inviting a little bit of criticism (and by that I mean thoughtful criticism, not just the ludicrous complaints that Mr. Rogers created a generation of entitled brats) or complicating some of his viewpoints could’ve presented a more nuanced portrayal of Rogers without tarnishing his reputation.
Still, there’s no denying the importance of both exploring a cultural icon and demonstrating that goodness can truly be a superpower. He captivated his young and adult audiences with his sincerity, even prompting a staunch congressman to revoke his vote to defund PBS. The beauty of this film is that we witness the kindness not just of Rogers but also of family members and coworkers. It’s as if his compassion was the best of contagions, inspiring everyone he met to treat others as their neighbors. We’re at peak awareness of the corruption that often comes with power, but the legacy of Mr. Rogers serves as a touching reminder that people can use their influence for good.
As cheesy as all that sounds, Neville masterfully prevents this film from being a typical inspirational flick by approaching his project with as much sincerity as Rogers approached his show. This is an especially amazing feat considering that we’re in a cultural moment in which we respond to everything from crises to victories with irreverence and gifs. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the heartwarming, earnest film that Rogers deserves.
Cake rating: But I also kinda love irreverence and gifs. As much as I liked this film, I also wanted to rebel against Mr. Rogers and watch Teen Titans Go! to the Movies—the kind of children’s entertainment that he loathes—while gorging on all the junk food, especially cake.
Featured image credit