Film review: ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’

Culture Curmudgeon

Fred Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”. Credit: Focus Features

The country that’s portrayed in Morgan Neville’s heartwarming film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe it never existed. The United States of America I know now is a far cry from the iteration I first encountered in the late 1980s through the early aughts. In today’s political world, everything has taken a more sinister turn.

I didn’t grow up in the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s, so I didn’t watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” until the 1990s, when I went to university here. When I did catch the show here in the U.S., I found Fred Rogers almost creepy. It was kitschy entertainment for the high and/or inebriated. I regret now that I never really paid attention closely to what he was trying to do, until I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” last week.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

The first time you see him in the film, he’s trying to compose something on the piano in his living room and talking to the camera. But even outside the television studio in an unguarded moment, he’s earnest and soft spoken. He immediately struck me as someone who was relentlessly authentic in public and in private.

Mr. Rogers was also an avant-garde television producer who was years ahead of everybody in the fledgling industry. If Neville’s film is accurate, TV programming in the U.S. back in the 1950s and 1960s appealed to the lowest common denominator. It was a steady diet of variety shows or sitcoms with cheap humor and sight gags, like Jerry Lewis’s programs and the Three Stooges.

Mr. Rogers rejected that model of programming as disrespectful and insulting to the intelligence of the viewer. When he settled on focusing on a show catering to children, it wasn’t immediately clear that he would be taking a different approach. But when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood finally debuted, it defied the zaniness of its peers. It was a quiet show with low production values with this tall, skinny, conservatively dressed man as the focal point.

Fred Rogers poses with Daniel the Tiger from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Credit: Focus Features

However, unlike other programs on television, Mr. Rogers treated the children in his shows as his peers. He spoke to them as honestly as possible, without any sort of condescension or baby talk. Rogers engaged them on a deeper level.

“Love is at the root of everything- all learning, all parenting, all relationships,” Rogers would say in an old interview included in the film. “Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”

Fred Rogers knew that television was a powerful medium that could shape one’s values and how he or she interacts with others. That’s why he wanted his program to be of substance and not just of the mind-numbing variety. He wanted it to be a show that could teach children about everyday things and tackle some topics that were difficult to discuss.

There are programs that cater to children or young adults today, but their viewership isn’t as vast compared to the vapid reality television shows that dominate the small screens. “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a nationwide hit. Everywhere he went, he was mobbed by crowds. People were drawn to him, not just because he was a big television star.

In “Would You Be My Neighbor?”, archived footage of his public appearances showed he was repeatedly approached by fans who told him how their lives were touched by his program. One of the most touching exchanges came late in the film where a woman walks up to Mr. Rogers to thank him and tearily tell him how his show helped her accept herself growing up and come to terms with the world.

Seeing Rogers in action made me yearn for someone like him in today’s media landscape. Nowadays the biggest and most popular television personalities are cruel loudmouths, who are unintelligent and crass about their views of the world. Just look at all the those “winning” all the time. They’re all about crushing their opponents and others who look and think differently from them. Everyone is guilty of this, on both sides of whatever political aisle you’re on.

They usually boast about their moral superiority and sometimes even their wealth and sexual prowess. They’re entertaining for sure, but what’s inexcusable is that so many of them have been elevated to positions of ultimate power and influence. Their impact has been so reductive in so many ways, not least the intellectual discourse of our times. Everything is cheapened and reduced to black and white views of the world.

Rogers was the antithesis of the reality megastars and actors of today. He treated everyone with respect and kindness. It seems that Rogers genuinely liked everybody, and he reminded everyone constantly of this.

“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch,” he said in the film.

“That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”

Besides appealing to everyone’s better angels, Rogers reminded the children and parents who watched his show of the importance of love and acceptance. My favorite among the many methods he used to get through his audience was his use of these strange-looking makeshift sock puppets. Daniel the lion is probably the best known among his alter-egos, and he spoke about some pretty difficult topics for parents to discuss with their children.

One of the most surprising moments of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” involves Daniel. There were a couple of audible gasps in the audience when Daniel asked one of the mainstays of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood about the word ‘assassination’. Robert Kennedy had just been shot dead a few days prior to the taping of the episode and Rogers was probably the only children’s show host trying to comfort confused youngsters all over the nation about the outpouring of public grief over the killing of a beloved public figure.

Fred Rogers and the Neighborhood Trolley from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” Credit: Focus Features

But the most touching part of the film is the exploration of Mr. Rogers’ personality. He was an insecure child because he was chubby and was constantly bullied by his peers. We see pictures of him as an overweight adolescent in the film, and the sadness in his eyes is immediately apparent.

In the film, one of the show’s mainstays, the actor David Newell, referred to Rogers’ childhood as the “Fat Freddy” phase. He would say “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood would have never happened if there was no Fat Freddy. His tortuous childhood would eventually determine how he would approach the world. He could have easily turned inward and callous and become a cynical, cruel adult. But somehow he emerged as one of the kindest, socially forward thinking individuals of his time.

I think the director meant “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” to be a feel good movie, but by the end of it, the audience’s grief and sadness were almost palpable. There were a few people openly weeping around me and I felt a little deflated myself. The film definitely celebrates Mr. Rogers life, work, and positivity. But in our current political climate, it’s taken an additional tragic dimension.

Walking out of that theatre that evening, it was obvious why everyone was a little depressed. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” reminded everyone that the age of civility, acceptance and tolerance in the U.S. is now just a fading memory. In their place, divisiveness, race-based politics, and greed reign supreme.