‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ is directed by Morgan Neville and explores the life, career, and legacy of Fred Rogers through his work on the PBS show ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ that spanned from 1968-2001. More than that, this documentary captures his philosophies on life. His intentions for the show. The world issues that happened over his more than three-decades on the air. As well as his thoughts on the changing of society, particularly in children’s television programming later in his life.
‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ was around during my youth. I loved all my cartoons, but the ‘Neighborhood of Make-Believe’ did have some lasting memories in my childhood. However, until watching this documentary and seeing the archival footage from the decades past, I had no idea how many subconscious memories, and how much nostalgia this show gave me.
The documentary itself is on the procedural side. It’s a formulaic progression of a subject’s early beginnings, mid-life progression, and later in life exploration. But it was perfect for this story. Fred Rogers’ life tells itself, and the substance you take in is all that’s needed. I felt Neville knew that and brought all the archival footage together perfectly to let it tell the story. More than thirty-years of programming is a lot of episodes to comb through. But all the poignant, monumental, and culturally impactful moments, throughout his run are excellently captured.
Rogers began his national run in 1968 and immediately dove into the Vietnam War explaining it to children. From a ground level, telling them what was happening, and providing insight to things their parents may have been talking about. He grappled racism head on with a blunt subtly that was perplexing to some, and inspiring to many. During times of segregation when news outlets were reporting pure acts of racism, and civil unrest, Mr. Rogers was teaching kids that all are treated equal. But in the unassuming way he was perfect at, visually for children to connect with.
In the late 60’s when PBS was on the verge of collapse Rogers spoke before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications along with many others in an attempt to get funding to grow the public television system. To keep it short it was not looking good. Many had spoken, and the funds looked all but lost. Fred Rogers took the microphone. With a blend of nervousness and confidence he talked from the heart, primary because the board was tired of the endless written speeches being read off. And after a few minutes PBS had their funding from hearing Rogers vision of teaching children about life, fitting in, and believing in one’s self.
This documentary covers these and so many other powerful moments throughout the show. It also edits loads of archival footage of Mr. Rogers talking on camera behind-the-scenes about his values, his ideals, his motivations, and his worries. It was excellent because Mr. Rogers tells his story in this documentary rather than a series of individuals in interview form. This one delivers long stretches of old footage, with commentary from outside individuals building onto it with added insight. Which I think was delivered very timely throughout. I had many memories of the show growing up and this documentary was able to pour in so much substance to fill in information in didn’t know. The progression of it also expanded on things I heard little about, which made it extremely thought-provoking, and fascinating from start-to-finish.
He covered so many topics on his show over the years that was able to build a fundamental thinking for children that was based on ethics, equality, honesty. And Rogers did so by not hiding from unconventional topics for children, such as death, tragedy, and divorce among many others. But this documentary also captured how many times on the show Mr. Rogers was working through some of his own childhood issues which was both intriguing and insightful as it brought some substance to his passion for wanting to teach children about the topics he did. I was expecting another routine documentary about an influential person’s life. Yet it turned out to be a very emotional trip down memory lane, about a show that had so much more history than I realized. Led by a man that was both perfect for his time, but at the same time ahead of his time in some respects.
The world needs a Mr. Rogers right now but in the skeptical society we live in I don’t think we would get the same result. People would always be looking for his angle and trying to find a crack in the persona. Added with the landscape of children’s television, and studio revenue, it’s hard to see the needed viewership coming in to make it a success, which is unfortunate. But we will always have the 32 years’ worth of episodes to remember the legacy of Mr. Rogers. Get some seasons on Blu-ray or find it on a streaming service. Put it on and see if your young children will like taking a trip into the ‘Neighborhood of Make-Believe’ like we did. ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ is a great documentary that captures the entire span of his career and life with a thoughtful approach. It delivered all it needed and more. It covers the good times, the meaning behind his messages, and it doesn’t shy away from some of the controversies. Making it very informative, emotionally touching, and well-rounded.