Bring Tissues: A 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' film review
by Will Lindus
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It can be a lens through which we view in a positive light the things and the ideas that helped shape us, as a means of helping to contextualize where we’ve been and, in some cases, provide a roadmap to where we wish to return. This is especially true during trying times, of political, social, or financial uncertainty. Usually, it is the times that appear in the aftermath of struggle that we look most fondly upon; post-World War II, we viewed the 50s as a golden era of family values and American prosperity. The 80s holds a similar place in the American mindscape, falling on the heels of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and during the waning years of the Cold War, where American exceptionalism and patriotism were trumpeted and cherished. This is part of why we are currently seeing 80s nostalgia flourish, as the media, programs, and toys that shaped the childhoods of 80s children are being revisited one after the other for remakes and reboots.
Nostalgia can also be misleading; when we look upon the past, we have a tendency to gloss over less savory aspects of our culture. Rampant racism and disquiet during the 50s, for example, or the Reagan administration’s disastrous handling of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. One thing that hasn’t survived the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia are the celebrities who inspired us. In the 80s, Bill Cosby taught the mainstream about racial tolerance and family stability, Hulk Hogan inspired our sense of self-worth and national pride (while reminding us to take our vitamins), and Roseanne Barr reminded us that even working class families are deserving of love and respect. Sexual assault, rape, racism, homophobic slurs, and scandal have not only tarnished the reputations of these icons, but also call into question the values that we may have absorbed from them in the first place.
All of this to say that it is particularly amazing that a man with the profile and the conviction of Fred Rogers remains such a positive beacon of hope today, with his reputation not only intact, but with his values even more essential and necessary in today’s world.
In Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) examines the man, through the bullying he experienced as a child, as he ventured into seminary school as a Presbyterian minister, as he launched his humble television show ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ and as he inspired generations with his views on childhood development. Fred Rogers believed that it is essential to reinforce a child’s self-esteem, not based on their accomplishments but by developing continuous self-worth. He believed that a child doesn’t need to do anything particularly remarkable to be worthy of love, and he believed that in providing a stable foundation of trust and support for a child is necessary for them to actualize into functional, caring adults.
Documentaries are often a slave to either the strength of the archival footage utilized or to the quality of the interview subjects. In the case of Won’t You By My Neighbor? Neville is able to exceed even these criteria. Neville’s strength is in weaving a narrative from all of the resources at his disposal, resulting in a view of Rogers that hooks your interest from the first moment and keeps your enraptured to and through the closing credits. The archival footage is paired deftly with interviews, evoking intense emotional responses while never feeling manipulative or cheap. Further, Neville employs animation and a few nifty camera tricks sparingly, enough to catapult the material without ever coming across as gimmicky.
You will cry. A lot. The curious thing about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is that it never really delves into tragedy; while Rogers did die in 2003, his life wasn’t a sad or overtly difficult one, and his story is more about a man with an unwavering vision who lived his best life, and who inspired millions to live theirs. The emotional hook from the film instead comes from the impact that he left on the lives of his audience and in the people in his life. Of particular note is the story of Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ Through his bond with Rogers, Clemmons found acceptance both as a black man and, later, as a gay man, though the road was not an easy one. I challenge you to follow the story of Clemmons in this film without shedding a tear of joy. And this is just one of the many inspirational stories about Fred Rogers found in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Yes, you will cry. Bring tissues.
Bottom Line: Documentaries don’t often capture the attention of modern audiences, so the fact that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has ascended to such prominence in the public eye speaks both for its quality as a masterpiece of modern documentary filmmaking, but also to the necessity of Mr. Rogers and the goodness that he exuded. Rogers inspired all of us to be the best versions of ourselves and to strive to make the world a better place, and once the credits roll and you’ve wiped the tears from your face, you’ll be inspired to make a difference in your world. I can think of no better testament to the man and to his vision than for us, all of us, to do exactly that.
5 out of 5 Bear Paws