Won't You Be My Neighbor?
This documentary feature spotlights the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, host of Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood. Its focus lies more on the history of the production of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Rogers’ role as a public figure in society, than on his personal life and biography.
20 Feet from the Neighborhood
One of my favorite areas of study in my film major was documentary. I took several classes on the topic and learn a lot on the history of “non-fiction” cinema. (The quotes are for my professor to let her know I learn something :P) You would think I’d love this new era of documentary we are in. Streaming has unlocked more interest and focus on documentary than ever before. The volume of these films being made is exponential in comparison to 10 years ago. Unfortunately, I am not as enamored.
Documentaries are great when they have something to say. We look to a topic to learn more about it. We study a person’s life because we have something to learn from them. The thing I love about the documentary genre is the audience that comes to a doc is coming to engage with something on a deeper level. More so than the average movie goer. They are coming to learn. Films like Craigslist Joe or Minimalism: A Documentary, though feel good stories, do a disservice to the craft and the artists working in it. Morgan Neville is one of those artists.
Neville came to prominence in the documentary genre with his 2013 film 20 Feet from Stardom. A film that chronicles the life and legacy of background singers of the pop world. The film was a juggernaut by documentary standards. It broke through to the mainstream and eventually nabbed Best Documentary from the Academy Awards that year.
Some of the themes and ideas that that movie struck are also found here in Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Similarly, to these singers you see the passion and the love for the craft in Fred Rogers. You see the overwhelming conviction that this is exactly what Rogers need to be doing with his life. You also see the heartache. You see him not go as far as he wants. You see the limitations of the TV industry holding him back from where he could be. Society put both Rogers and the background singers in a box with an easy label and stopped engaging them on the level they wanted to be heard on.
One of the best parts about Won’t You Be My Neighbor is it picks up some of the production sensibilities of its subject. This film is great counter programming for a summer full of blockbuster spectacle and mindless action. Early on in the film, Neville focuses on discussions about the pacing and timing of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Rogers used different timing and pacing compared to the other children’s programming it was competing with. While the film is educating the viewer on the productions sensibilities of the show it is also telling its audience how to consume this movie. Won’t You Be my Neighbor is paced way outside of the average filmgoer’s expectation and it, like the show, has some of its most impactful moments in silence.
20 Feet from Stardom is an incredible doc and I highly recommend it, but Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a vastly superior film. Neville crafted a wonderful movie.
It’s You I Like
There are a lot of documentaries that are in this style. They take their subject and put them up on a pedestal and there the subject remains. A film made by fans for fans. They generally become overly sentimental and even saccharine. The fan-filmmakers omit the parts of the subject’s life that are problematic or contradict the hero narrative the film sets to layout. So, what do you if the subject of your film is genuinely a saint?
Fred Rogers was a radically unique individual. His compassion and caring for children was unmatched in the television space. It would have been easy to make a documentary to build him up to be a saint. This Christ like figure without any flaws, who only wanted to do good. (One of his children actually compares him to Christ on earth at one point). The movie engages a level deeper though. There are these beautifully intimate moments where we hear stream-of-consciousness writing when Rogers doubts his ability to pen a script. We see his initial refusal to accept his black gay co-star’s sexuality. We hear Rogers’ disbelief and doubt that he can have any impact after 9/11 to bring people together. Most of all we feel the discontent as an undercurrent throughout Rogers entire life. The film brings us to accept that that discontent and fear is just as much a part of the man as the happy high energy neighbor we know and love.
Rogers’ main message throughout all his life is love. He wanted to connect and engage with people. Show them how to take care of each other. For me, the main message of Won’t You Be My Neighbor is about self-acceptance. Self-love. It is a deep portrait of a man who spent his whole life warming the hearts of millions, teaching them to love themselves for who they are, and yet who struggled with his own message. Rogers has an uncanny ability to communicate, but the film does the most by sharing his vulnerabilities.
Call to Action
The film balances this incredible line between the message of overwhelming positively and this lurking reality of fear and failure. This internal struggle of Rogers gets expanded outside of him to society writ large. We experience many major world events through the lens of Rogers and his show. We see towards the end of his life he starts to lose his conviction that his message can be heard. He feared the forces he pushed against can’t be stopped. This is carried through by his family and colleagues who survive him. They remark on how someone like Rogers doesn’t exist today.
The film could have easily ended there and been tremendously impactful. We are living in extremely dark times that get darker by the day. It feels like the forces of hatred and prejudice are overpowering the forces of love and acceptance. Instead this film ends with a call to action. It reminds us of Rogers own words. You are special and beautifully unique in who you are. Fred Rogers made a choice. It wasn’t easy, at times it was impossible. The man who singled handedly saves PBS didn’t do it by being a god. He did it by being himself. He came prepared with lengthy philosophical briefs on the merits and value of public television. He saved PBS by reciting a children’s song about dealing with anger to a US Senator. He won by being him.
This movie leaves you with the desire to be better. To treat people with respect. To love and accept who you are. It doesn’t paint a quaint picture of Rogers’ life, but one with lots of shadows. It shows you how to be a light, light the way for other, and leaves you wanting to do it. I could not strongly recommend going out to see this film enough. As soon as possible. It is a beacon of hope. It also breaks from the norms of Blockbuster Summer. If we want more films like this to be made we must vote with our wallets.