Nothing can encapsulate the earnestness of Fred Rogers, the iconic television host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – not even Morgan Neville’s great documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, despite being close.
The documentary goes through the humble beginnings of Rogers as he tried to convince television network WQED to push through the broadcasting of educational content for children around the early ‘50s. In a time wherein child-friendly content on television was comprised of dressed up clowns doing a lot of throwing pies into faces for possible laughs and many variety contents, it can be said that Rogers was one of the first few movers who saw the power of television for a change.
Rogers had a specific philosophy in life, from which he learned through time. While in front of the piano, he compared his wisdom to playing the piano – how everyone, including him, should have the responsibility to educate their children on how to properly modulate between life’s different themes, much like shifting between multiple piano keys regardless of the difficulty. His commitment to this responsibility is ever so present in his later production works, especially during the entire run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
In the show, Rogers was brave enough to cover the most sensitive issues for his child audience. Throughout, he has educated themes such as racism, war, assassination, and death without being forced. Rogers was wise enough to use his puppet characters in the show, some of which he also played, to make the discussion more mild-mannered. There’s softness in each exposition, gradually telling you of the strong facts to easily consume.
During an episode, Rogers dared to go to lengths of showing an actual dead fish to illustrate death. He, later on, buried the fish, telling his audience that acceptance is always a key ingredient to life’s many obstacles, like how he would tell in the other ones.
The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor is more than a tribute to Fred Rogers to enumerate his greatest accomplishments. At the end of the documentary, the director Morgan Neville lets us know that Rogers is not a single powerful energy who can eradicate the evil forces in the universe. Fred Rogers might be the most optimistic, hopeful, lovable man in the universe, but he is not alone. Neville, through one of Rogers’ final commencement speeches, asked us to look to what is in our hearts – the people who made us into who we are.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a reminder that even after Rogers’ passing, there are still good things in life worth subscribing to. Worth fighting for. Worth embracing. Worth smiling. Worth loving.