To be frank with you, I am not that familiar with Fred Rogers, but I have heard about what a singular American TV celebrity he is. His famous popular children’s television program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” may look too simple and tacky on the surface, but this gentle, decent guy effortlessly and gracefully delivered honest and sincere messages on love, kindness, and empathy for more than 30 years, and it is no wonder that he has been fondly remembered by lots of people even after his death.
Documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” may not show you anything particularly new about Rogers if you are familiar with him and his show, but it looks closely into his simple but profound humanity, and the result is informative and inspiring to say the least. While recognizing less bright aspects of his life at times, the documentary touchingly presents Rogers’ decency and goodwill based on his religious belief, and, just like his show, it surely reminds us of the importance of love and kindness in our life.
The documentary begins with the early years of Rogers’ TV career, which was started around the time when he was trained in a seminary for being a minister. When he happened to watch children’s TV shows while spending some time in his family home, he did not like much many of those TV shows, so he decided to try to make a better one, and he eventually got a chance to produce his first children’s show at a local TV station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania several years later. Although that show looked cheap and shabby mainly due to its low-budget production, it quickly became popular thanks to Rogers’ infectious charm and avuncular persona, and its small but significant success subsequently led him to the development of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in 1968.
Through a series of archival footage clips from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, the documentary shows us the simple charm of the show. In the beginning, Rogers always stepped into his studio set as gently singing his theme song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, and this routine opening segment was usually followed by “Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, which featured a bunch of various puppet characters including Daniel the Striped Tiger. Often accompanied with Rogers’ stock performers, all those puppet characters were handled and voiced by Rogers, and several interviewees including Rogers’ family members tell us a bit about how those puppet characters were the more colorful reflections of Rogers himself. For instance, Daniel the Striped Tiger was a persona representing Rogers’ younger self who was not so happy during childhood years, and there is a very poignant archival footage clip in which the importance of being loved is tenderly demonstrated through the conversation between an actress and Daniel the Striped Tiger.
As his show later moved onto Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1970, Rogers became more popular than ever, and he accordingly became a prominent representative of PBS. He even gave a testimony before a US senate committee when President Richard Nixon tried to slash the government funding of PBS drastically, and his plain but sincere and passionate testimony eventually made the committee grant the 20-million-dollar budget for PBS.
And he boldly tackled sensitive social issues in his TV show while steadily maintaining his neighborly aura. As a person who was never condescending to children and always respected children’s thoughts and feelings, he was willing to talk about those sensitive issues, and we see several notable examples. Not long after the nation was shaken by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, the concept of assassination was frankly explained in his show, and then we also see another archival footage clip showing Rogers gently explaining divorce to a bunch of various kids.
He was also quite opened-minded about race issues, and François Scarborough Clemmons, an African American performer who was one of Rogers’ favorite performers, reminisces how wonderful it was for him to work with Rogers. During one episode of the show, he and Rogers casually washed their feet together in a washbowl, and that moment was certainly more than enough to show Rogers’ belief in racial inclusion, though it took some more time for him to accept Clemmons’ homosexuality.
As entering the 21th century, Rogers tried to keep working, but his show was eventually ended in 2001, and he became less spirited than before – especially when whole nation was shocked to the core on September 11th, 2001. That horrific incident made him have lots of doubt on his belief in humanity, but he did what he had to do for the nation and its people as a public figure. On February 27th, 2003, he died due to stomach cancer, and his death was mourned by many people around the nation.
Deftly mixing archival footage and interview clips, director Morgan Neville did a commendable job of conveying to us Rogers’ unadorned human sides, and I also like a number of animation scenes revolving around the animated version of Daniel the Stripper Tiger, which movingly reflect Rogers’ spirit and personality. As far as I can see from “Won’t You Be My Neighbors?”, he was simply a wise, thoughtful human being who tried to show why it is always important to be nice and kind to others, and those valuable lessons of his are something we still need even at present, considering how our world has been disrupted a lot by the rising wave of apathy and cruelty during recent years.