Directed by Morgan Neville (2018)
by Hunter Bush
The world needs more people like Fred Rogers in it.
I already held that sentiment before seeing Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville's biographical documentary of Rogers. What I didn't realize until after seeing it was how great that need truly is.
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'' To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers; so many caring people in this world."
If, like myself, you spend probably too much time on the internet, you've most likely seen the above quote being passed around with increasing frequency in recent years. Personal politics aside, the sheer number of undeniably tragic events recently can leave you feeling lost, overwhelmed or helpless and that quote seems to help many people. I find myself thinking of it fairly often.
The quote is effective because it makes the concept of hope visible and relatable without resorting to empty platitudes. It also, somewhat, puts the onus on the reader to consider how they, themselves, can become one of the helpers. What makes it work so well is that Fred Rogers translated these complex thoughts into language anyone, even children, can instantly understand. And that is the magic of Fred Rogers.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? is structured, more-or-less, around Rogers' entertainment and education career, revealing biographical details as they pertain to aspects of his show. Seeing how Fred Rogers was so deeply involved in his shows and put so much of himself into them, I couldn’t imagine it any other way; talking about them is essentially talking about the man himself. Neighbor uses a ton of archival footage from throughout Fred Rogers' career, mixed with brief animated sequences and the usual talking head interviews from Rogers' friends and family to showcase his life's work and explain why it was so important to him. Having grown up a sickly and somewhat lonely child, he remained sensitive to those feelings and more than anything, wanted to make life easier for any children who felt like he had.
Rogers felt that children were not being taught with the kind of care and intelligence that they deserved. Somewhat ironically, he had a special dislike of television, or more specifically how he felt it was being misused; more to foster consumerism in children than to educate them. Rather than ignoring his perceived problems with children's programming however, Rogers would go on to host one of the most influential children's shows and attempt to lead by example.
Near the end of Neville's doc, he shows a clip from a Fox News segment which called Rogers "an evil, evil man", blaming him for Millennial entitlement. While I think that segment is equally slanderous and ridiculous, it did force me to address the little, pessimistic thought that had been repeatedly nagging me from the back of my mind: Did Mr. Rogers succeed? Is the world better off now than it was?
In 2001, Mr. Rogers briefly came out of retirement to record a segment discussing 9/11, and during that segment he used the phrase "Tikkun olam", a Hebrew phrase meaning "repairing of the world". The world will always need some kind of repair or another and Fred Rogers took it upon himself to be one of its repairers, to do what he could to help. By being a near-constant presence on children's television for over thirty years, he reached countless children and attempted to teach them how to be more conscientious, self-assured and kind. In other words, if you were looking for the helpers: he was one. Now it's up to each of us to decide how we can be a helper too.
One particular moment in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? stands out to me, even days after seeing it: Rogers’ long-time friend, acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma remembers playing one of Rogers’ favorite pieces over the phone to him shortly before his death in 2003. It’s a moment that stuck with me not because the piece was especially melancholy but rather the opposite, it felt full of beauty. As with the documentary as a whole, what moved me was that refusal to give in to sadness. I would be wary of anyone who doesn’t tear up during Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, as it’s an incredibly touching tribute to the lasting impact one man can have, on individuals and the larger world.