Like thousands of children before me, I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And, like thousands of adolescents before me, I grew out of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and declared my maturity by mocking his warmth and simplicity. He just seemed too nice, too weak to deal with the complex, edgy world that the teenage me of the late 90s wanted to enter.
So imagine my surprise when the talking heads in Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? keep referring to Fred Rogers’s pure will — the will to make the children’s television show he wanted to make, the will to tackle weighty subjects like death and divorce, the will to be kind. Tracing the show’s creation in the early 1960s to Rogers’s death in 2003, the film presents Mr. Rogers as someone adimently, fiercely committed to affirm the inherent value of everyone, especially children.
Neville rarely overstates his thesis, letting it rise naturally through the standard documentary techniques he employs. Interview subjects include everyone from Rogers’s family to famous friends such as NPR’s Susan Stamberg and cellist Yo Yo Ma, the kindly curator of the Mister Rogers museum to an earthy member of the show’s Pittsburg crew. No matter what their relation to Rogers, they all affirm the same thing: he was exactly as kind as he seemed on tv.
But while Won’t You Be My Neighbor will disappoint anyone looking for Behind the Music-like dirt on Rogers, it doesn’t portray him as a saint, either. The film spends quite a bit of time with actor François Clemmons, who portrayed policeman Officer Clemmons on the show. While Rogers made a point to welcome and interact with Clemmons as a rejection of racism, he was less tolarent of the man’s homosexuality. He insisted that Clemmons remain closeted so that the show not lose funding from corporate donors, and even encouraged a sham marriage to throw off suspicious parties. But as Clemmons himself states on camera, Rogers repented of his error and affirmed his love for his friend.
This ability to change, to struggle in the name of love resounds throughout the film. Animated segments appear throughout the film featuring Daniel Tiger, one of the puppets on the show, accompanied by Rogers’s voiceover. Representing Rogers himself, Daniel makes his way accross expressionist renderings of everyday beds and lamps, atop a foreboding black background, going on adventures that mirror the narration. Through Daniel’s voice and actions, Rogers expresses his fear of rejection and failure, fears he overcomes in the name of love.
We see that love related through decades’ worth of archival footage from the show, in which Mr. Rogers tells thousands of children like me that they matter, just the way they are. The movie outright states that such a position isn’t easy, but it only takes a minute after the credits roll to realize how important it is.