Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the story of the nationally beloved TV icon known as Mr. Rogers, captures the incredibly genuine nature of the late Fred Rogers. This man was not making a television show to strike it rich, wield power, prove someone right or wrong, or make something of himself. He made the show because he cared so deeply about children, about helping them process their thoughts and feelings in a complex world of adults who told them they would understand everything when they were older. Through his long-running puppet-and-live-action show, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, he gave kids a better understanding of themselves and the world around them so that they could flourish as compassionate, open, loving human beings. The fact that it made him a legend seems relatively inconsequential to Mr. Rogers himself.
He studied the behavior of children with leading scholars in child psychology. When Nixon threatened to defund public television, Rogers rescued $20 million in support with an impassioned song recitation in a senate hearing. His show pushed the social boundaries of racial inclusion. For children, on national television, he addressed topics like the assassination of JFK, the building of walls to keep out non-American citizens, and 9/11. The film does an extraordinary job of walking us through Rogers personal and popular development without shying away from his complexities, like the depression he faced near the end of his life or the incessant feeling of insignificance that plagued him.
The audience oscillated through laughter and tears throughout the screening at Full Frame. It’s hard not to cry when you witness the story of someone like Rogers. He was incredibly intellectual, profoundly philosophical, kind, nurturing, and decent. Listening was his gateway into your heart. He used music to charm audiences young and old into paying attention. He wanted people to understand each other, to accept each other for who they were without trying to rearrange anyone from the inside out. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a film for a divided America, and something about Rogers moves us to address that divide instead of furthering the gap.