Even as a kid, I knew there was something inherently comfortable and calming about Mr. Rogers. I remember sitting in front of the television watching him put on his cardigan and tennis shoes and singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” I vaguely recall his puppets and sidekicks and forays into the land of make-believe. Do I remember specific episodes and messages? Not really (I was, after all, quite young). But this documentary explains and validates why the man – and his show – were truly special, and why there are lessons still to be learned today from the classic program and the man who created it.
The documentary, directed by Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) is an homage to Fred Rogers, an ordained minister and children’s advocate who wrote, produced and voiced all the puppets in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” from 1968-2001. The film features interviews with his wife, kids, friends and co-workers, recounting how the soft-spoken icon inspired generations of children with a tremendous amount of compassion and imagination. Rogers had a genuine desire to make things better for children – to help them deal with whatever was happening in the real world (from the Vietnam War, to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, to the Challenger explosion, to 9/11) and to process and express their emotions and learn valuable lessons, like “always look for the helpers”. He spoke to kids simply and directly, using public television as a tool for good. In 1969, Rogers delivered an impassioned plea to the Senate Subcommittee on Communication to save funding for public television (President Nixon wanted to slash funding due to the Vietnam War sucking the budget). I vote for replaying Rogers’ testimony on a loop for the current administration and Congressional leadership.
Rogers died in 2003. Won’t You Be My Neighbor makes a strong case that what you saw with Mr. Rogers was truly what you got – and more. The documentary isn’t perfect (the ending is a bit long and drawn out). But overall, children young and old could certainly benefit from watching the doc and celebrating Rogers’ legacy… one that promotes diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance, compassion, love and kindness – in the neighborhood of Make-Believe, and around the world.