With cynicism running like a toxic streak through mainstream media, a documentary on sweet, soothing TV host Fred Rogers may strike you as hopelessly naïve – or just the pep talk we need. We're with the latter camp. Won't You Be My Neighbor? traces how this ordained minister – one with a need to help children make sense of the world – managed to carve out a place on television over 1,765 episodes from 1968 to 2001. Rogers died of cancer at 74 in 2003, a youth advocate who quit the seminary to become an evangelist for television.
This portrait, from Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), isn't out to canonize the TV icon or to bury him. A political conservative, Rogers didn't like rocking the boat. But his first commandment of kid-friendly show business was always telling it like it is. Whether the topic was the death of a pet or the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the host felt patience and understanding could go a long way toward helping his young audience understand tricky issues. His show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, was pokey enough to draw derisive laughter from skeptics who couldn’t endure the slowpoke way he opened every show: smiling, changing into comfy shoes and a cardigan and addressing his audience with a song. "So, let's make the most of this beautiful day/Since we're together we might as well say/Would you be mine?/Could you be mine?/Won't you be my neighbor?” (In other words, nothing a wall-building president would be caught singing today.)
Generations of kids proved the naysayers wrong by forging a close connection to this gentle man whose sympathetic manner stood in marked contrast to the manic cartoon mayhem that proliferated on childrens’ programming. To help guide his young audience threw life’s thornier patches, Rogers created puppet characters, most memorably a glum-faced Daniel Striped Tiger with whom he strongly identified. Neville sketches in his subject’s own childhood as a sickly, overweight kid bullied as "Fat Freddy" and who suffered bouts of loneliness and anger.
We don't hear much from the man himself, notoriously private till the end, in the archival clips. One of his two sons admits that it wasn't easy being raised by "the second Christ." During the years of school segregation, when black families were bullied out of public swimming pools, Rogers invited his onscreen neighborhood cop, played by gay African-American François Clemmons, to share a footbath on camera. His costar later points out that his boss advised him to stay closeted for fear of hurting the show.
Even after his death, Rogers endures bashing from homophobes who claimed he was gay, and pundits who insist he taught millennial brats to think they were "special." Hollywood is planning a feature on Rogers starring Tom Hanks, which will no doubt offer its own clues into the enduring mystery of a public figure who raised several generations of kids by proxy. But in the end, Won't You Be My Neighbor? performs the invaluable service of letting us witness the man in action with those who meant the most to him: children. In these troubled times, it's a good feeling to see a funny, touching and vital doc that is both timely and timeless.