Grace. Humility. Kindness. Understanding. Fred Rogers embodied each of these attributes even when the world around him didn't always follow suit. At a time when there is so much uncertainty, fear, bigotry and turmoil happening around us, a sublimely humane documentary like "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is needed more than ever. In exploring Rogers' life and his thirty-plus years hosting PBS children's series "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," director Morgan Neville (2013's "20 Feet from Stardom") reminds us love and goodness will overcome hatred and cruelty every time. Rogers had an innate ability to level with children about their everyday feelings and real-world troubles (or, as he described it in a 1967 interview, to "help children through some of the difficult modulations of life"), and he did so without ever talking down to them.
A well-to-do but often sickly child who had to entertain himself through his own imagination, Fred Rogers grew up with the intention of going to seminary to become a minister. Instead, he felt a different calling, one that put him on television screens and turned him into a beloved household name. Concerned that children's programming too often went for slapstick without bothering to teach anything to the youngsters watching, he created "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" in 1968. The show had a leisurely pace, low production values, simple sets, and an unlikely grown man as its star, but the resultsfeaturing Rogers talking directly to kids about the universal issues they experience, as well as a visit on each episode to the puppet-filled Land of Make Believeworked beautifully.
As Fred's friends and family (including wife Joanne) tell it through interviews, the person seen onscreen was the person he really was. Neville meticulously edits the film in a way that is much like the man at its center, using the opportunity to teachand listenwithout becoming maudlin or preachy. Some of the most emotionally impactful moments are ones that touch upon how he handled tragedy or responded in his own gentle way to the tumultuous climate of the time. Archival footage of the series makes a deep impression, from a poignant discussion about assassination following Robert F. Kennedy's murder, to themes involving death, divorce and bullying, to one episode where he invites a person of color, friendly neighborhood policeman Officer Clemmons, to share a dip of his feet in his kiddie pool at a time when controversy was brewing over black people being allowed to swim in public pools. A scene from a 1968 episode, filmed during the height of the Vietnam War, where King Friday XIII wants to build a wall out of fear of change and co-existing with those different from him, is like a shot to the heart in 2018. Also wonderfully moving: a clip of Fred Rogers speaking in front of the U.S. Senate during a period when President Nixon was looking to slash the budget and dismantle public television to pay for the war.
Fred Rogers' theology was to love your neighbor and love yourself. And yet, later in life, a small but apparent backlash began. Newspaper editorials ignorantly criticized him for sending the message to kids that everyone is special and therefore deserves to have things handed to thema pessimistic view that went against his own beliefs that everyone truly should be treated as equals and given the same opportunities. At Fred's 2003 memorial, anti-gay picketers stood outside for the sole reason that he exhibited tolerance to the LGBT community. It's crushing to learn about and see this ugliness, and yet it's a credit to "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" that it never sugarcoats or backs away from the sometimes tough truths and adversity which Fredand the planet at largehad to face. Through his life's valiant work, he sought to open minds and lead by example. "Those that make you feel lesser than you areI think that's the greatest evil," Fred Rogers says during an archival interview late in the picture. His words resonate, not only because of the wisdom behind them, but because they are as relevant today as they've ever been. "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is poignant, uplifting and desperately needed right about now, a compassionate embrace in filmic form.