In the opening scene of Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, we see black-and-white home footage of Fred Rogers sitting at a piano. He seems relaxed, comfortable, at ease in front of the camera while not putting on a performance. “I just had some ideas that I’ve been thinking about for quite while about modulation,” he says with a curiosity and matter-of-factness. “It seems to me that there are different themes in life, and one of my main jobs, it seems to me, is to help, through the mass media for children, to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life.” The musical analogy is both simple and profound, straightforward yet remarkably complex. Such was Fred Rogers, the beloved ordained Presbyterian minister who viewed his Christian vocation and ministry through the literal lens of a television camera.
It’s difficult to separate one’s emotional reactions and critical engagement to Fred Rogers the Man from A Movie About Fred Rogers the Man. The former is a humble marvel, a modern day miracle worker, a human exemplar of All That Is Good. The latter is a fairly straightforward talking-head documentary combining thematic and chronological structures, moving us swiftly through episodes of Rogers’ life (which seems appropriate for a television personality) without really breaking new formal cinematic ground. The various interviewed figures all mostly lionize Rogers–there are rarely negative criticisms or questions, although some of the interviews with his two sons, Jim and John (sons of thunder!), seem to hint at some insecurities about growing up with Mister Rogers as one’s father. His wife Joanne is frank about her husband, though she seems just as delightful and caring as he was. Yet Won’t You Be My Neighbor? avoids becoming a propagandist treatise or hagiography, instead simply showing us that Fred Rogers was a genuinely good person. One interviewee mentions a question people often wondered: Is he really always like that? Won’t You Be My Neighbor? suggests that yes, indeed he was.
Many film critics have remarked in their reviews how much they cried during Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. I am no different–I was teary-eyed from start to finish, and often full-on weeping (I’m even getting emotional as I type these words). Rogers was a significant voice in my own childhood; his program ran off and on for over 30 years, and I remember watching episodes as a young boy, singing along to his songs and drawn in by his rich affirmation of imagination. He gave permission for children to ask tough questions and think deeply, to love people of all backgrounds and cultures, to make-believe and to believe in their inherent goodness. This is incredibly liberating stuff for a kid to hear.
The remarkable affectivity of Fred Rogers is not due to his wow-factor or stylish performance. He was ostensibly mundane, a dorky white man with side-part haircut wearing a 1970s-era wardrobe of khaki pants and zip-up sweaters. What makes Rogers so incredible is his incarnation of unconditional love. In every word–even the angry ones about children’s television cartoons or cultural mores–in every act, in every posture, he exudes that mysterious quality of love. This isn’t a shallow or sentimental love, but one which clearly emerged from Rogers’ theology. The various interviewers discuss this, that Rogers was living out his Christian theology and faith via television, trying to spread as much of Christ’s love as possible, all without resorting to overt religious language or proselytizing/apologetic methods. As Rogers says, “Love is at the root of everything–all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.” It turns out that genuine love is, in fact, good news.
Jesus once said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). I think Fred Rogers is one of the best present-day incarnations of this practice and ethic. In this, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a remarkably Christian film in the very best sense of that word, and a reminder that genuinely good people really exist. One interviewee says that there are probably people like Fred Rogers all over our world, quietly loving people and inspiring others to do the same. Our world desperately needs more of this love, more neighborliness, more listening, more grace. As Rogers states, “I suppose it’s an invitation, ‘Won’t you be my neighbor?’ It’s an invitation for somebody to be close to you.” Would that we could extend and accept that invitation in the here and now.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7681902/