Cast: Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Kailyn Davis
Director: Morgan Neville
Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes: From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes an intimate look at America’s favorite neighbor: Mister Fred Rogers. A portrait of a man whom we all think we know, this emotional and moving film takes us beyond the zip-up cardigans and the land of make-believe, and into the heart of a creative genius who inspired generations of children with compassion and limitless imagination.
If you grew up in the United States at some point in the last 50 years, you probably have a very intimate familiarity with Fred Rogers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? breaks down the life and work of Mr. Rogers and reveals a person far more complex than what we were used to. An experienced director like Neville should have no problem capturing the essence of a man who thrived on kindness and generosity, and Neville does just that while also showing us sides of Rogers that only his closest friends and family knew. An emotional, well-structured story combined with beautiful moments of animation make Won’t You Be My Neighbor? one of the best documentaries in years.
The film follows the life of Fred Rogers, from his childhood upbringing to his status as one of the largest names in childhood television. One of the things that I really enjoyed about the film is that it does not show Rogers as an omnipotent, always good person. It shows us that from his upbringing even until the last few years of his life, Rogers dealt with many internal issues, but was able to put those aside and do what he thought was right for the children of the world. I was very concerned that this documentary would very much be 93 minutes of self-worship, but Neville completely blew me away with the direction of the film. The movie answered many of the preexisting questions I had about Rogers and answers them very clearly and honestly. One of those questions is whether or not Rogers acted the way he did in real life as he did on the show. This is where the interview with Francois Scarborough Clemmons, one of the supporting characters on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, shows just how much of an impact Rogers can have on people when the cameras were not rolling. Rogers took the time to break down racial barriers in the United States with Clemmons’ presence on the show and made it a point to show young children the dangers of racism and the power of loving one another. Outside of Clemmons’ race, the issue of his sexuality also arose when the show was being filmed. Clemmons is a gay man and Rogers requested that Clemmons not publicly come out due to the level of backlash the show would receive from the public. As the show progressed, even though Clemmons never came out on the show, Rogers made it known that he would accept Clemmons and love him no matter what. This was one of the burning questions I had and I am glad that it was adequately answered. I knew Rogers did was against racism and hatred in general, but I wondered if his background as a minister would cloud his acceptance of gay people. Fortunately for all of those that follow him, he has no issue with anyone due to characteristics they cannot control, so you can still hold him in high regard. Outside of the character elements, one of the things that surprised me the most was the animated transition scenes narrated by Rogers. Not only do they perfectly illustrate the point trying to be made, but they provide a beautiful parallel between the show and the world that Rogers lived in. They are beautifully designed and add to an already incredible documentary that Rogers would be proud to be associated with.
Overall, in a spectacular combination of humor, emotion, and positive thinking, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? stands among the giants of documentaries within the last decade. The fact that Neville was able to get so many people who worked and lived with Rogers to agree to be interviewed and flawlessly intertwines all of their stories together is astounding. I truly believe that in today’s hostile personal climate that this is a film everyone should see so that we can all relearn the lessons of Mr. Rogers and learn to love each other just a little bit more.
Overall Score: 9/10