I suppose this is a first for me, since I've never reviewed a documentary like Won't You Be My Neighbor? before.

But when I saw that a documentary was coming out about Fred Rogers, and his iconic television show, I knew I had to see it. And so I took the trek up to Grand Rapids (since no local theaters are showing it) to learn whatever I could about this man.

So what did I think? Well, you should ask the tear stains on my t-shirt.

This isn't going to be a typical review, because as a documentary it obviously doesn't have much of the features typical of film critique. So I'll just start off by saying I absolutely loved the entire thing, and I wish it could be longer.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? chronicles the life of Fred Rogers, beginning with his original introduction to television. He returned from seminary and was introduced to this new thing, with people getting pies thrown in their faces and advertisements galore. He is said to have immediately hated it, and become simultaneously determined to use it as an important tool to help children.

Focus Features via YouTube
Focus Features via YouTube

As a result, he gets involved in the industry and eventually creates his own show, that became "Mister Rogers Neighborhood".

This documentary covers key points during the shows run, such as when he first decided that he needed to address current events that might scare children; the catalyst for that was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

However, while the chronology and development of the show is obviously featured at length, the real focus of the documentary is the philosophy behind it. Mister Rogers was a man with a simple message of love, but it was one that many people struggled to hear at first, and that many people still struggle to hear. If I could boil it down to its essentials, it'd be something like this:

1. Every person is special

2. Every person is important

3. Every person has inherent worth

4. Every person deserves to be loved exactly as they are

His philosophy was solidly and obviously grounded in the message of Jesus of Nazareth, befitting an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church. Yet the most amazing thing about this is, he basically never brought up his religion during his program, besides allusions to heaven when teaching about death. I feel in doing this, he was more effective at spreading the message of his faith than any other evangelist could be; instead of preaching, he simply demonstrated how one should live.

What I appreciate about Won't You Be My Neighbor? is that it doesn't shy away from discussing the faith of Fred Rogers, or from the occasional doubts the man suffered in the efficacy of his work. His greatest concern wasn't fame, or wealth, but with helping the children of the world, and so whatever he felt would accomplish that is what he did.

They also touch on those who doubted him; when adults see someone as innocent and kind as Mister Rogers, our cynical nature might think, "well, he's not really like that. He must be gay, or a pedophile, or something else must be wrong with him". You remember the rumors that he had been a Navy SEAL killing machine before his show? Or criticisms that his program was creating a generation of "snowflakes"?

The thing is, Fred Rogers really does seem to have been as he appeared. Throughout the documentary, interviews with his wife, people who worked with him on the show, the families of the guests on his show, they all said he truly meant it when he said "I love you just as you are".

Focus Features via YouTube
Focus Features via YouTube

If I may speculate, I think that as adults who have been jaded by the world, we don't want to admit that there might be people as good as Fred Rogers. If the world is cold, and cruel, and every kind act must have a selfish motive behind it, it absolves us of responsibility to be the best we can be. However, if Mister Rogers was truly as he seemed to be, that means we too could be that good. And if we can be that good, aren't we obligated to be? If every person truly is special, and important, and worthy of being loved, don't we owe it to each other to live in a way that honors that?

Truly, it is a heavy responsibility that most of us would like to believe we don't have.

Personally, I think everyone should see Won't You Be My Neighbor? while they can. In West Michigan, the only theater showing it right now is in Grand Rapids, and it looks like it will stay that way. But if you cannot make it up there to see this, I implore you to see it when it comes to Blu-Ray or streaming services.

For those of you who grew up with Mister Rogers in his neighborhood, it will be a wonderful trip down memory lane and a great portrait of his life and his show. If you didn't have his show as a kid, I still think you should see it, so you can know that there is good in the world, and it starts with you. As Fred Rogers himself said..

“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

See the trailer below.

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