Movie Reivew: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

Who doesn’t remember this iconic song? Makes you feel like a kid again, doesn’t it? That was the intent of Fred Rogers as he sang it in his soft, kind voice at the beginning of each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a documentary about the beloved children’s TV host from 1968 until 2001, from black and white to full on color. Mr. Rogers was the father, friend, teacher, and pastor we all wanted when we were growing up. He approached children with purity of heart, without guile or pretense, the Forest Gump of children’s TV. He presented his true, authentic self to children and they loved him for it.

Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian pastor and on his way to seminary when he felt God leading him in a different direction. Watching the shoot-’em-up, punch-’em-out cartoons and programs for children on TV, he felt they were not being allowed to be children, nor were they being taught to manage their emotions. Instead, they were being taught to hit and fight, rather than use self-control and finding a healthy way to manage their feelings. (I wonder what he would think of today’s video games?) He wanted to help children, give them something and someone to count on. Rogers had the unique gift of being able to remember what he thought and felt at each age of his childhood, which he drew upon with his audience. When on set, he visualized that he was speaking to one individual child and each child watching thought Mr. Rogers was speaking directly to him. Though he never spoke of God, we saw God in him.

The show was Rogers through and through. He wrote the script, designed the sets, created puppets and characters that portrayed different aspects of his personality. He wrote the songs and starred in his own creation. Those who knew him well said, “What you see is what you get.” Mr. Rogers of the Neighborhood was Fred Rogers the man.

Every episode began the same way with Mr. Rogers entering the same door while singing his famous song, changing into a comfy sweater and tennis shoes, feeding the fish and speaking conversationally to his audience. For 33 years the routine was the same and the set remained unchanged. In this unchanging sameness the children found a safe, predictable place to ask hard questions and discuss scary topics.

The first week the show aired Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The children heard the scary news but didn’t fully comprehend what they had seen. Rogers confronted the topic head on, spending the week discussing death and, through his alter ego puppet, Daniel, defined the word assassination. Rogers walked the kids through the Viet Nam War, the Challenger explosion, race relations, divorce and anything else troubling to a young mind. If a child could shine a light on the monsters in the closet, they seemed less scary. And, it was okay to be afraid, to talk about fear.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is filled with clips and close-ups of Rogers, with interviews of family and the crew, and tender moments of Rogers, one on one, with children. It is in theaters now. Today’s children would be bored but Mr. Rogers’ kids and we who raised them will love this nostalgic walk in the Neighborhood again.

~ Cheryl Kurtz

Won’t you please, won’t you please,
Please won’t you be my neighbor?

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