True/False Film Fest: 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'

Director Morgan Neville cuts straight to the heart of matters with this moving biography of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers is having a political moment. In the current climate of siloed news sources screaming at their respective bases and disseminated over social media, there are occasional voices of reason to be found. Graphics and memes and truncated videos are being shared that feature one Fred Rogers, guiding us to "look for the helpers" and reminding us what it looks like to advocate for the public good.

Despite the fact that it's been 15 years since his death at age 74, Mr. Rogers' message seems ever more timely. Earnest renewed interest in Mr. Rogers has spawned an incredibly popular children's show based on his Daniel Tiger character, an episode of Comedy Central's Drunk History, and now a feature length documentary about his career.

Director Morgan Neville (whose previous films featured at True/False include Best of Enemies: Buckley Vs. Vidal and the Academy Award Winning 20 Feet from Stardom) brings us a kind of greatest hits and selected b-sides of Rogers, with interviews from his sons, his widow, former Mr. Rogers cast-members, and Yo-Yo Ma who, it turns out, was close friends with Rogers. Much of the audience at the festival were filled with people who were either kids that grew up watching Rogers, or had young kids during his peak, and emotions were high. There's something about Rogers that people feel very personally, and watching the film there's no question why. He spent his whole life trying to convince the viewer that he saw and understood them.

It opens with black and white footage of Rogers at a piano looking quite young, and seemingly thinking out loud about the kind of programming he would like to put on television, treating us to songs and observations about feelings. Neville, who has built a career on biographical programming, masterfully takes us through the pertinent information of Rogers' life; how he was ordained to be a minister, but discovered television and felt compelled to improve it; how he worked at WQED in Pittsburgh doing puppetry on unscripted children's shows; and how he passed his first test in a room full of children by listening to their feelings and communicating that he understood them. Neville cuts back to this black and white footage throughout the film as a kind of anchor -- this person is just a person who wanted to do good.

Watching the film, it's exciting to think about the kind of mania that surrounds children's shows and think about how that applied to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Won't You Be My Neighbor? discusses a time when the station had an opportunity to meet the show's production team and Rogers himself, and the response was overwhelming. All because Rogers would discuss feelings, teach kids that feelings are valid, and that they can be managed. It also references how he would enjoy putting silence on TV, just slow pauses to allow time for viewers to breathe. We also get to see analysis of what the basis was for several characters including Daniel Tiger being a surrogate for Rogers himself, King Friday representing tyranny, and the witch as Rogers' sister. It's a fascinating window into his mind.

David Newell and Fred Rogers in Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018) (© Focus Features) (IMDB)

One of the things that surprised me was that Mr. Rogers Neighborhood would tackle heavy and complicated subjects, in addition to basic emotions. There is a clip where Daniel Tiger asks what "assassination" means, presuming the audience has heard about Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and addressing it as a topical issue. There's also a clip of Daniel Tiger admitting that sometimes he feels like his existence is a mistake. To the wrong audience, this could play rather strangely, but there's a subset of the audience for whom this will cut straight to their heart.

Cynics may go into the film hoping to see what kind of dirt will be dished on Mr. Rogers, whose position in pop culture has begun to take on a Christlike level. (No one could possibly be that squeaky clean, right?) There's even a point at which one of his sons refers to him as the second coming. What viewers will find is a man whose Christian principles involved including everyone and making everyone feel safe, regardless of appearance, religion, or gender. It seems as though he just tried to exude the goodness he wanted to see in the world, like a pure version of Jimmy Carter. NPR listeners may have recently heard the episode of StoryCorps featuring François Clemmons (who played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood) describing what it was like to be black and be asked to play a police officer on TV during a time when African Americans were especially targeted by police. Clemmons retells that story here, including an anecdote of sharing a foot bath in a kiddie pool with Fred Rogers in one episode, when many private and public swimming pools were segregated. Neville juxtaposes black and white footage of a segregationist dumping bleach into a swimming pool that had black children in it with Rogers drying Clemmons' feet in an especially Christlike manner.

The one bit of dirt I took away from his interactions with Clemmons was a time when Rogers confronted Clemmons about going to a gay bar. When Clemmons admitted he had in fact gone, Rogers told him he couldn't do that again, which sent Clemmons further into the closet. Of course, in those days, it would have been quite a scandal for a known figure on a children's show to be "outed" at a gay bar. But Clemmons wasn't fired because of it, and it didn't end his friendship with Rogers, but Clemmons felt he had to walk on eggshells around Rogers thereafter. He does say later in the film that one of the most meaningful experiences he had was hearing Rogers say he liked him just the way he was. Rogers, of course, said this to his audience throughout the course of his career, but Clemmons asked him directly, "Were you talking to me?"

"Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today."

The device that Neville uses to close the film is just too good and might make you cry. But it does speak to what an impact Rogers had on our country and continues to have with syndicated episodes, shareable clips, and the roaring success of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood (PBS). I imagine Won't You Be My Neighbor will have a hypnotic and emotional effect and it will catch on once it has wide distribution from Focus Features (releasing in June in the US). It may even be shortlisted for next year's Academy Awards.

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