It’s a hard time to believe in people. Between the cruelty of family and child detention, continuing waves of #MeToo revelations, and the myriad of racial, economic, and gender-based injustices we encounter every day, the overwhelming lesson of the last few years appears to be this: True goodness in others (especially in our public figures) is rare — perhaps far more so than we thought.
It could not be a better cultural climate for a movie about Mister Rogers.
Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? arrives reminding us that kindness, gentleness, and selflessness carry their own influential power. Neville’s portrait of iconic children’s entertainer Fred Rogers is refreshing in its affirmation that Rogers really was the compassionate man we grew up watching. It also proves to be a necessary film in its presentation of love as a practice, one requiring intentionality and constant growth.
The film follows Rogers from his professional beginnings as the producer of a children’s program at a public TV station in Pennsylvania, through the creation and success of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It also explores the legacy of his work through his colleagues, friends, family and other collaborators.
The documentary is a powerfully positive portrayal of Rogers, but it’s not a hagiography. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? also explores Rogers’ self-confidence issues, and areas of his life where he still needed to grow. We see the way Rogers initially struggled to accept cast member François Clemmons’ homosexuality, and his frequent worry about the quality of his work. Neville also gives us a window into the emotionally repressed childhood that led Rogers to a career of recognizing and celebrating the expression of feelings and vulnerability.
Throughout it all, we see a man who genuinely cared for others, but not through some supernatural ability (though his spiritual gifts are undeniable). Rather, kindness here is shown as a spiritual practice, exercised through Rogers’ intentional listening and recognizing the spirit of God in everyone he encountered. The frequently shared idea on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that we are worthy of love without having to earn it is rooted in the Bible’s story of grace. Sadly, it’s not an idea we often hear in our daily discourse, exemplified by the way simple messages of unconditional love in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? pack a surprising emotional wallop. Hearing one person say “I like you just the way you are” it to another and mean it carries a stunning weight.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? would be an important film to watch any time, but is an especially healing balm right now, in the midst of a dark and uncertain time characterized by increasing cynicism. The story of Fred Rogers reminds us that kindness is a choice we make every day, that feelings are important and valid, and that love — or its absence — is the driving force behind our lives. Yes, goodness and altruism in others may seem rare. But the importance of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? lies in showing us that it’s not impossible, and may be easier to generate than we think.