As a child watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS, I always loved when Mr. Rogers would transition out of a jacket and loafers into a cardigan and sneakers. The clank of the hangers in the closet, the eye contact he made with me while singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the variety of the colors of sweaters in the closet, the generosity of time he gave to the entire task, the reliability of the routine—all these things were a subconscious symphony to my soul.
The new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? generated these same sensations in my adult self—magnified by a hundred as the film invited me to delve into why and how Mr. Rogers did the things he did and had the effect he had on nearly everyone who encountered him.
A Compelling Story
Regardless of one’s familiarity with Mr. Rogers, one cannot deny that he is a compelling subject. But in the hands of Morgan Neville, the telling of Rogers’ story becomes profound, must-watch art. Lucky for us all, we get to experience the fruit of a director who culled mountains of good material into a well-crafted story. Neville’s choices of transitions and variety of commentators paired with related and evidentiary clips of Rogers effortlessly guide the viewer through the film while keeping them engaged and hungry for more.
This film is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. And it is a masterclass in how to be a human—in how one can touch the world around him or her. The film speaks to the human yearning for love and relationship as we witness the astounding fruits of Mr. Rogers’ offering of love and friendship to his castmates, crew members, family members, and viewers. All kinds of people are drawn to Rogers and his love and offering of relationship, from his rough and tough crew members to his castmates like Officer Clemens—an urban black gay man whom one might think could have kept a distance from or guard against a conservative, white, Christian minister such as Fred Rogers. All of these people were profoundly changed by their relationship with Rogers. It seems simple, yet the film reveals the power of respect and friendship, and the yearning that resides in all humans to have love and a friend.
Teaching Truth, Loving Well
One of the documentary’s most stunning scenes encapsulates the beauty of the film and the beauty of the life of Fred Rogers. In an early clip from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1969, Mr. Rogers, with his slacks rolled up to his knees and a towel around his shoulder, sits in his yard with his bare feet soaking in a small plastic pool on a hot summer day. The neighborhood policeman, Officer Clemmons, soon walks by, and Mr. Rogers invites him to rest and soak his feet in the pool alongside him. Officer Clemmons accepts the invitation to respite and proceeds to sit, take off his shoes and socks, roll up his slacks, and put his brown feet into the cool water right next to Mr. Rogers’ white feet. The camera lingers in a close-up of their feet in the small pool accompanied by the sounds of the moving water and sighs of relief. It speaks volumes about love, friendship, masculinity, race relations, gentleness, respect, joy, patience, care, compassion, God, and humanity. The power of teaching truth and loving well. I find myself wiping away tears again now in the remembrance.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? closes with the assertion of the dignity and worth of all human beings as children of God, as the viewer comes to realize that belief in that truth is what motivated everything Fred Rogers did. It left me thinking about how I can see and listen to others and choose to be kind. This exceptional documentary on this exceptional man both stunned and revived me. Oh, the possibilities of a life well-lived!
As I reflected on the film, I remembered the call to love your neighbor as yourself. But instead of responding to that call by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Mr. Rogers simply asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” And that’s something all of us should take to heart.