Ordained minister turned children’s television icon Fred Rogers spent nearly 50 years educating generations of young people on the value of love, kindness, and human decency that can exist in even the darkest times. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s beautifully rendered, award-winning tribute to Rogers, follows the career of the man himself from his earliest forays into television in his native Pittsburgh in the late 1950s to his death in 2003. Interlaced with interviews of family members, co-stars, crew members, and close friends, including journalist Tom Junod and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the documentary considers not just Rogers’ groundbreaking television career, but his underlying philosophy — grounded in tolerance, peace, and an insistence that each of us, as human beings, are worthy of love.
Born to affluent parents in Latrobe, PA, Rogers planned a conventional path through the Presbyterian ministry. Then he was struck by the advent of television and the possibility of reaching children through the then-emerging medium. He began shooting an early version of what would one day become Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s WQED in the mid ’50s. After a brief hiatus, in which he completed training at seminary, Rogers returned to television with a full cast of humans and puppets and the set of a comfortable home from which he could, for the next four decades, invite audiences to be his neighbor.
Neville’s film follows a loose chronological path, weaving bits of Rogers’ biography through the moments when Rogers made quietly radical television for children. From the late ’60s onward, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in its own infinitely gentle, patient way, grappled with difficult topics, including war, racism, illness, death, divorce, and bullying. Whether it be RFK’s assassination in 1968 or the Challenger Disaster, Rogers was there to guide children through the confusing and scary aftermath of tragedy.
Off camera, Rogers served as a lifelong advocate for children, a critical voice in the development of public television, and a genuinely inspiring person to almost everyone he came into contact with. Neville inserts just enough humor and humanity that the documentary does not come off as pure hagiography. It is, however, admittedly difficult to imagine a more genuine subject for a film than Fred Rogers.
Ours is an often loud, angry world, in which it’s all too easy to eschew compassion and decency in favor of cheap shots and quick fixes. That there may yet be a place in society for kindness, love, and patience is indeed a salve to anyone bruised by all the cruelty and bluster. Perhaps that’s why Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ended up being a surprisingly successfully documentary upon its release early last year. Even grownups need a reminder every now and then that good exists — or, more importantly, that they can be the good.
The Henderson County Public Library will present Won’t You Be My Neighbor? at its Etowah Branch (101 Brickyard Road) on Thursday, Feb. 21, from 2-3:30pm. Free. For more information, see hendersonpl.libcal.com, or call 828-891-6577.