What is missing from the world in this day and age? Kindness. Kindness appears to be missing in this day and age. While everyone is yelling at each other and becoming tribal via social media, kindness is becoming more and more rare. Kindness exemplifies the work of Fred Rogers, the remarkable host of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The life and work of Fred Rogers is now being celebrated in a new documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?).”
In the 1951, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Fred Rogers was on his way to become a Presbytarian Minister when he first saw a television. The remarkable invention inspired him with its seemingly endless possibilities. Mr. Rogers would become a Minister eventually as well as a music scholar with a degree in music composition from Rollins College in Florida before settling into the world of television at WQED in Pittsburgh.
Rogers determination from the beginning was to work in children’s television and by 1963, the seeds of what would become Mr. Rogers Neighborhood were sewn. You likely know about Mr. Rogers and his sweaters and his songs and puppets but did you know he studied child development with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh alongside? That’s just one of the fascinating notes that make Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?) so unique and interesting.
"Won’t You be My Neighbor(?)" was directed by Morgan Neville, a documentarian who specializes in music documentaries. His “20 Feet from Stardom” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature at the 2013 Academy Awards. Neville is a smart, thoughtful and curious director who comes at the material of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?)” with an eye toward a conventional documentary narrative, a linear, life story, approach.
However, the unusual part of the “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?)” is in the weight Neville gives not just to telling Mr. Rogers’ life story but explaining the impact he had on the lives of his viewers. Rogers was a quiet revolutionary, a Republican who fought for the funding of PBS in front of Congress and won. In 1968, in the wake of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, Rogers engaged his child audience in a conversation about death.
That same year, as controversy raged over civil rights and black people were being kicked out of public pools, Rogers enlisted his friend, Francois Clemmons as Officer Clemmons in the Neighborhood, to share a soak in his pool. The conversation had nothing to do with race or the raging controversies, it was just pleasant small talk about the weather but the visual of two people, black and white, sharing a kindly conversation, said what the conversation did not.
Clemmons is among the very emotional interviews that are featured in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?), alongside Rogers’ sons and his wife, Joanne. Naturally, everyone has lovely things to say about Rogers but the stories aren’t saccharine hagiography, but rather an earnest, emotional, fond remembrance. The film humanizes Rogers, especially near the end of the film when we get a glimpse of Rogers’ own insecurities, the kinds of things he helped children get passed.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?)” is a remarkable documentary without being showy or over-dramatic. Like its subject, the documentary is quietly revolutionary, playing to our emotional attachment to Mr. Rogers while genuinely educating us about this remarkable man and his impact on the world. For me, his kindness is a model. Rogers’ kindness is a superpower better than most superhero powers. Kindness is at the heart of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?) and that kindness, remembering that kind of kindness, makes this the best documentary of 2018 thus far.