Nothing can encapsulate the earnest nature of Fred Rogers, the iconic television host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Even so, Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor makes a commendable effort.
The documentary explores Rogers’ humble beginnings in the early 1950s, as he urges television network WQED to branch out into broadcasting educational content for children. Rogers was one of the earliest advocates for television as a tool for personal growth, in an age when children’s programming was limited to superficial variety content. He clung to a specific philosophy in life: that everyone, himself included, shouldered the responsibility to teach children how to properly navigate life’s many themes. Rogers likened the skill to shifting between multiple keys on a piano. His commitment to this responsibility is ever-present in his later works…most notably during the run of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
In the show, Rogers was brave enough to cover even the most sensitive issues for his young audience. Rogers educated on themes such as racism, war, assassination, and death, using puppet characters to make the discussions more mild-mannered. There is a softness to each exposition, gradually building to the stronger facts of life in a way young minds could consume. In one instance, Rogers dared to show an actual dead fish in order to illustrate death. He later buried the fish, telling viewers that acceptance is a key ingredient to life’s many obstacles.
The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor is more than a tribute to Fred Rogers and his greatest accomplishments. Director Morgan Neville seeks to show that Rogers is not a single powerful energy who alone can eradicate the evil forces of the universe. He was an optimistic, hopeful, loving man, but what he sought to accomplish can never be done alone.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a reminder that even after Rogers’ passing, there are still good things worth subscribing to. Worth fighting for. Worth embracing. Worth smiling. Worth loving.