Won't You Be My Neighbor? Review
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Won't You Be My Neighbor? tells the story of Fred Rogers and how he created the iconic children's television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001).
It begins with Fred himself explaining how he ended up going into children's television instead of the ministry. He was later ordained in the Presbyterian church with a mandate to minister through children's television. The story focusses on several important episodes throughout the show's history including: explaining 'assassination' after the death of RFK in 1968, Mr. Rogers inviting Officer Clemmons, a black police officer, to share his kiddie pool, the public service announcements he made in the late 1970s about make-believe and how superheroes on TV can't really fly. There are also many behind-the-scenes videos, such as Mr. Rogers speaking before Congress in 1969 to plead for money for PBS, visits to children outside the studio and several funny outtakes from taping the show.
In terms of content shown, Won't You Be My Neighbor? doesn't show us anything particularly new. Most of the show footage presented can be found on the Internet or has appeared in earlier documentaries about the show. What is new are the interviews with surviving cast members, including Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons), David Newell (Mr. McFeely) and Betty Seamans (Mrs. McFeely). Also interviewed are Mr. Rogers’ widow Joanne, his sister Elaine and his two sons James and John. They all give great insight into Fred Rogers and what made him who he was.
The film emphasises that what made Mr. Rogers so extraordinary was his understanding of what children really needed, he never forgot what it was like to be a child. Whenever Fred is narrating a story from his childhood, an animation of Daniel Tiger, his first puppet, appears, acting out what Fred is explaining. All of the puppets are described as different facets of Mr. Rogers, a means of letting his inner child out. With each section, Won't You Be My Neighbor? makes it clear that the world needs more people like Fred Rogers.
It also makes indirect references to the current political and social situation in the USA though no one is named specifically. As a possible solution to the issues gripping the world, the filmmakers share the story where Mr. Rogers talks about 'finding the helpers' in bad situations, and how we should be the 'helpers' to those around us.
The documentary does briefly touch on a few controversies surrounding the show, such as Francois Clemmons being told by Mr. Rogers that he couldn't publicly come out as a gay man or he'd have to leave the show. The film doesn't exactly gloss over all of Mr. Rogers’ flaws, but they aren't given a lot of time either. The emphasis is given to everything positive he did in life.
By the end, Won't You Be My Neighbor does its best to leave you feeling inspired to charge out into the world and make a difference just like Fred Rogers. And in today's world of messed up news stories, it's a 90 minute breath of fresh air that is very welcome.