You have to have lived in a cave for most of the last 50 or so years to not know of Mr. Rogers. In case that’s you, Fred Rogers hosted “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” on Public TV from 1968 to 2001.
It broke some very original TV ground, and — as you learn in this documentary — Rogers is more important than just being the man credited with saving public television from a congressional axe during the Nixon presidency.
The title “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is coined from a line of a song Rogers sang to start the daily episode. From there each show dealt with all things kids. Rogers talked directly to children and explained simple and complicated things to them. Topics ranged from the importance of being nice to each other, and nice to ourselves, to divorce and death. He showed how things work and why, and how they don’t work and why.
Rogers’ philosophy is that we’re all driven by love, and by showing love we elicit love in return. Sounds simplistic, and I suppose it is in some ways. But love — at least from a child’s black-and-white perspective — is simple. Rogers knew that instinctively. He speaks about how important it is to open the door to a child’s mind by making a statement, or asking a question and then just waiting for them to respond.
Sometimes — he says — it takes a while but once the flood gates open, all kinds of treasured comments and insights come forth.
Rogers also worried about children. The commercial programming aimed at them from the alphabet networks and other sources made him angry. The seemingly senseless violence and lack of morality and moral conclusions irritated him. Rogers — who rarely showed anger — didn’t feel like they were all that beneficial to children or to humankind.
He’d be apoplectic at what’s happening in children’s programming today.
Director Morgan Neville (“20-Feet from Stardom”) points out Rogers’ program irritated conservative critics who thought he was telling kids they were entitled. That — of course — is not true. Ironically, Rogers was a lifelong Republican and correctly told children that they are unique and important to the world. Most of us don’t remember — though we should — that it is awkward and difficult to be a kid. It can be uncomfortable and scary. So Rogers’ message is absolutely true and is something children need to hear.
Fred Rogers was a genius. He was a kind and gentle man whose passion for and love of children was a gift that is sorely missed today. That thought hit me two minutes into the film and stays with me now. In today’s violent and divided society, one filled with negative rants and hate-filled social media posts and television shows, we’ve never needed Fred Rogers more than we need him today.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is that rare, not-to-be-missed and inspiring documentary. To date it is my second favorite movie of the year.
Movie name: ‘Won’t You be My Neighbor’
Director: Morgan Neville
Stars: Fred Rogers, Betty Aberlin, David Newell, Joe Negri, Bob Trow, Don Brockett, Chuck Aber, Francois Clemmons
Mr. Movie rating: 5 stars
Rated PG for mature themes. It’s playing at the AMC Kennewick 12.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen.
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it’s your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on DVD.
2 stars to 1 star: Don’t bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.