Documentaries are perhaps my least favorite genre that filmmaking can offer. Not because I don’t enjoy being informed, but because the vacated gap of cinematic value that is never as prevalent as it needs to be to keep me intrigued. It’s one of the reasons I never provided a written review for Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “RBG,” which is a fine film, but one that never pushed me far enough to deliver a few paragraphs of my thoughts. Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not one of those documentaries for myself.
Providing an intimate glimpse into the life and significance of a poorly produced television show and it's unlikely star. Always admitting that the inherent production value to be found within Mr. Roger’s show was nothing to be wowed by, but the intrinsic value and organic connection found is what leads to a show that talked tough to children, with earnest generosity for the limitless mind of a child. The structure of the documentary is what stole me away from the get-go, the film doesn’t begin with the expected opening of “when Fred was a child.” No, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” jumps into the thick of things and provides a strong opening that introduces those of whom are unfamiliar with the “second coming of Christ” as one of Fred’s sons so cleverly described.
We run down the beginnings of the TV show shortly after that, learning that troubles of fabricating television shows from the ground up when the film was not so prevalent as it is now. Being forced to use old film, the show would cut out in the midst of live airing. This lead to Fred getting the idea for puppets such as Daniel the Tiger which would jokingly provide the time during these breaks in the airwaves.
From there, we learn the significance of a man speaking to children with maturity, but never pridefully shouting down to them. The fellow leaders in his cause, and the ability he had to connect with children without ever needing a funny hat or a funny gimmick. Fred was a man that directly came down to there level; he tells a story in which one of his first interactions with a large group of children took place at an elementary school. A kid asked him a peculiar question that pondered as to why a toy loses its ear, Rogers describes the room coming to an anticipated silence as if the kids said: “this is your test, do you still have an imagination? Are you still one of us?” Fred responded with the same childlike curiosity and then carried on to list all of the other things that can get lost, each limbering description widening the child’s eyes.
Each child felt this way, but “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” doesn’t stick with the effect that Rogers had on children. We get a glimpse of the risks he took by discussing themes such as assassination, death, and divorce. His importance as a figure that was able to provide the only hopeful light on a subject of such grief and tragedy like the Challenger explosion in 1986 that was answered by Rogers. As well as the dumbing down of children, the treatment of children’s future selves while simultaneously ignoring the present imaginative child, and using the core essence of his faith to inject the world with a little bit more kindness.
Morgan Neville (Oscar Winning “20 Feet from Stardom”) is someone who applies a unique touch to this film. He never introduces topics that are not easily google-able, you can simply research Fred’s importance and risk-taking and stumble upon an article to read in a matter of minutes. It’s the essence he attaches to the documentary, allowing Rogers to speak almost directly to the audience with that genuine poignancy he’s famous for, but it's also the structuring as I stated already.
The technical aspects of the filmmaking can’t go unmentioned either, whether it's Jonathan Kirkscey’s music or Graham Willoughby’s cinematography, both of which stand out more than you’d expect. Willoughby has a framing in which the camera feels as if it's been placed inside of a television, lensing the child that is viewing this sweater wearing pastor. Providing a visual representation of the intimate connection shared between the man on the screen and the child on the other side whose one on one experience feels special.
Neville builds upon that specialty with the story of a man whose faith inspired to him change the world, but the world continued to battle against his benevolence. Continuing to rage against his machine of generosity with racial tensions, division, and massive acts of violence.
At one point, he was asked to provide a PSA after 9/11. He asked a friend what the end of all this was? The world seems to be getting worse. It’s a heart-wrenching thing to watch a man with boundless joy, whose own optimism and hope become internally questioned due to the continuing destruction of reality. His constant reminders of love continued to push him on, such as the idea of 143. A weight that Rogers stayed at for an extended period of his life that numerically alphabetized the phrase “I Love You,” in which each number stands for the number of letters to be found in each word.
It’s not his love that struck me though, but his continuing devotion to the idea of liking someone precisely the way they are, something that few members of the church believe. Rogers was opposite, his dear friend Francois Clemmons was someone that Fred allowed to be a statement for racial tensions. He later learned that the man he used to represent colored minorities, was apart of another minority in that of the gay community. Fred was against the idea of Clemmons coming out because it would put the show in danger of cancellation, sacrificing something for the greater good. It took Clemmons two years to learn that Fred may not have welcomed that part of him on the show initially, but he already told him that he still loved him just the way he was.
Which is what Rogers best feature was, he was someone that embraced anyone and everyone. Even though he never welcomed himself, sharing a duet at one point in which he sings lyrics that described himself through the symbolic representation of Daniel the Tiger as a mistake as if his kindness and compassion did not belong in the world that he was born into. The idea is especially haunting when discovering his funeral was protested with such hatred due to his rumored homosexuality.
Something that remained just a rumor, but when met with hatred something that Rogers taught that every interviewee took part in near the end of Neville’s exceptionally poignant documentary was the idea of taking one minute to think about someone who has helped you most along your journey of life. Allowing one of our greatest gifts, silence, to remind us of someone's love that pushed us towards something better. I’ll tip my hat to this great man once more, and take part in this experience myself.
Placing the keyboard down and allowing silence to remind me of someone’s love that assisted me to this moment with you, the reader. I hope you indulge me and join in because we all should take time to remember those who have cared about us this whole time, and loved us just the way we are, welcoming us into their neighborhood of love. Something that Mr. Rogers did better than anyone I can remember.