Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Directed by Morgan Neville
Starring Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas, Jr, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Kailyn Davis, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell
Today, it is difficult to think that the greater American public was served through one man, his music, his imagination, his understanding and his kindness. More importantly, Fred Rogers was able to pierce the façade of a television camera. He was a man who understood the power of the medium and worked to offer children a place to have a discussion with them, actually, with me. I was his audience in the 1980’s.
Oscar-winning* and Emmy-winning** documentarian Morgan Neville takes us on a journey of not only a man, but someone who proved the power of simple acts of kindness and understanding can have on people. His latest documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” uses archival interviews with Mr. Rogers, who sadly passed away in 2003 after a life of public service.
Neville takes us back to Fred Rogers’ humble beginnings. There have been many myths surrounding Rogers, which Neville clarifies, yet it is Rogers’ lasting impression on the public, at large, that the narrative focuses on.
Fred had an avid interest in music and entered seminary after college. He then discovered television. In the 1950’s he worked on several children’s programs, focusing on music. Though he was not interested in preaching, he realized that he could offer a sermon to young people through the power of very simple sets, puppets and music. For the five year old me, he ignited my own overactive imagination as he took the audience to far off places. He did it in such a way that I could understand it.
One of the most familiar memories for me was the Challenger disaster in 1986. Though the event was plastered all over the news, it was Mr. Rogers and his ability to reach me that made the tragedy make sense. He also taught me tolerance, something that Neville devotes large swaths of his documentary to. Much to my surprise, one of his many actors who had a recurring role on the show reveals something that, while it did not surprise me, it left my heart even more full of appreciation for who Fred Rogers was.
One thing that did surprise me was his appearance before congress in 1969 to preserve the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS). As easily and as naturally as he could talk to a child, he was able to talk to a senator. The way Rogers was able to communicate was so very unique, it has not been repeated and Neville drives this point home. He was a defender of the greater good, and I am forever grateful for his impact on my life.
Another facet that Neville focused on was Rogers’ need to be doing something. He eventually produced 912 30 – minute episodes over 31 seasons from 1968 to 2001 out of WQED Studios based in Pittsburgh. He took breaks over the years and downshifted to specials that focused on events. His show made use of a SINGLE camera for nearly 30 years before moving to a multiple camera set up; that is the power of his ability to communicate with an audience.
It goes without saying that Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is a trip down nostalgia-lane. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that wasn’t completely the focus of his documentary. I learned more about a man who left his heart and soul on the screen long after each episode was over. There wasn’t a single dry eye during my Phoenix Film Festival screening back in April. Neville manages to carry Rogers’ legacy, his imprimatur is left for another generation to experience his gift of communication. There will never be another like Fred Rogers and Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is a gem best shared with friends.
*Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for “20 Feet From Stardom” (2014)
**Outstanding Historical News & Documentary Emmy Award for “Best of Enemies” (2017
4 out of 4 stars.