SIFF Film Review – Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
I, like every other kid who grew up in the 1970s, watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on a daily basis. I don’t remember much about the show, although the episode where he went to the crayon factory will always live on in my heart. But really, I don’t have much of a sentimental attachment. So, it came as a shock to me when I started tearing up every time I watched the trailer to Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? What the hell? And then I wept through the entirety of the Seattle International Film Festival press screening. I don’t normally stay through the credits, but I needed some time to collect myself before I left the theater. (I would like to apologize to the two dudes sitting in front of me, because I am sure they weren’t enamored of my constant sniffling. REAL TEARS PEOPLE.)
For those not in the know, Fred Rogers was the host of a children’s television show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which began in 1968 and had its final episode in 2001. Rogers was born in 1928, and by the time he reached adulthood, he was interested in become a Presbyterian minister. Instead of pursuing a traditional ministry, he became interested in the possibilities of children’s television. Not as a tool to preach his religion, but as a countermeasure to what he saw as the crap being made for and marketed to kids. He was interested in children and wanted to create programming that took them and their feelings seriously. In addition to providing educational segments (like the awesome crayon episode), he addressed topics such as divorce, assassination, and death. But the show’s biggest message was a pretty radical one: everyone deserves to be loved just exactly the way they are. We don’t have to fit someone else’s idea of worthiness, or change who we are in order to deserve love. (Although Rogers was a life-long Republican, some conservatives would later turn on him and accuse him of being responsible for creating a generation of adult snowflakes who want participation awards and other unreasonable things like affordable housing, living wages, work/life balance, and consensual sexual relations.)
On the surface, this seems like a documentary about Fred Rogers, and as such it’s okay. It hits on the major beats of his life and lightly touches on some of the more controversial aspects of his story. (Which aren’t that shocking, really.) One of his children expresses the difficulty of being the child of a star known for being the nicest man in America, and there is some discussion from François Scarborough Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons – the first Black children’s series regular according to his IMDb page, about how Rogers made it clear Clemmons would need to stay in the closet as long as he was on the show. But none of these things are dealt with in depth, because this is really a film about Rogers’ ideas. Even more importantly, it is an argument for civility, mutual respect, and love. And that is why I keep crying every time I think about this movie. (Yeah, I had to fight back some tears while writing this review.)
For those of us with shitty childhoods, the idea that a child doesn’t have to meet an ever-changing set of criteria in order to be loved is a pretty powerful message. I’ve long ago come to terms with my past, but I know I was lucky to have my own versions of Mr. Rogers in my life with my Grandpa Russ and Granny Pet. But it’s more than that making me cry. I’m kind of dispirited right now with things in the world. Social media makes it easier than ever to be mean to people, our government is closing its heart to folks in need (both citizens and immigrants), it’s not just possible to be a racist in public but in some circles encouraged, and it is becoming nigh near impossible for people with differing viewpoints to have a civil conversation about anything. If you take Mr. Rogers’ message to heart, we would all be working to ensure a better future for our children. At the very least, we would be able to converse about what that future should look like and debate the best way to get there instead of what we do now, which is yell at each other. Mr. Roger was really good at listening, and I don’t see a lot of that happening right now. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized love is an action, not a feeling. Maybe we have forgotten that as a society and need to be reminded that loving our neighbor is a thing that is done, not just talked about. You could do a lot worse than watch this film to see what that might look like.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Morgan Neville from SIFF.