Every so often there is a message so pure its hard not to stop and listen. As we get closer to the Thanksgiving season, examining the message Fred Rogers fought so hard for can quite literally make our thought brighter. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t the flashiest documentary of 2018, but it might be the most important.
As i’ve become older, documentaries have grown to be my favorite genre. Stories about history, true crime, conspiracies, sports, and movies as the unfold in real life at times can be more entertaining and enthralling than any original story. Generally stories that are the complete opposite of our own life are the most appealing. They give a perspective on the other side of life. How could a story about Fred Rogers, a man who’s sole purpose in life was to make a dated show about puppets for children be the best documentary of the year?The film’s greatness is not about the show itself, but about the man quietly screaming for us to love each other as we are.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor chronicles the start to finish of the famous PBS children’s series “Mr Roger’s Neighborhood”. The film opens with a monologue from Rogers about his purpose in life and what he wants to gain from starting his own program. Through the film, we aren’t as much guided through the history of the show itself, but about the message. The very first week Mr Rogers Neighborhood aired the topic was on violence and war. Fred wasn’t scared to talk to children about the realties of life. He also wasn’t afraid to admit his own faults. He would specifically write songs about depression and anxiety, and how sometimes those feelings are seemingly impossible to shake.
As christians we all know of verses such as Matthew 18: 3-4 that read “…truly i say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” However, at times we fail to apply these to life and attempt to teach our children to “grow up” or “get tough” or even shelter them from the realities of life. Fred Rogers knew the joy of being a child and the complexities that came with those children growing up in a difficult world. He felt it was his job to not only teach children to love themselves but to respect people as they are. As the verse above indicates, we can look at his message as adults and apply that to own own lives.
Many times with documentaries like this, the viewer is shown a very one sided response from the documentary team. The narrative is only supposed to be told in a certain way for us to new question our main character. This film however, spends times showing Roger’s depression, his inability to speak for himself at times, and at times his judgmental attitude in the need to control every aspect of his show. They document his reactions to the rumor that he is a closet homosexual and show his inability to truly connect to an adult audience. The issue that his message was to create a “soft” generation of children is also addressed. As a millennial, the stigma is that we created the participation award and that we are only satisfied with being told “good job” for tasks we don’t actually accomplish. It is a fair criticism to think something like Fred Rogers started this trend.
Through all that however, we are shown a man willing to mix races on screen at a time when that was still a major topic. He would handle difficult topics like bullying and suicide himself, while leaving a personal metaphor through puppets. He never backed down from difficult discussion and would fight tooth and nail to keep what he loved so dearly on the air. Despite his flaws, the man on screen and the man in real life were the same.
In terms of criticizing this film, there are very few flaws to nitpick. On one hand it is a very easy story to tell. There isn’t anything truly exciting about the life of a PBS children’s show host. There’s no grand revelation that Fred Rogers actually had tattoos or killed fifty men in Vietnam. There is no scandal or downfall outside of an old man letting the times get the best of him. However, there is a story of a man tell us as adults that it is ok to be afraid and look at life from the purest sense. As christians we are supposed to take a humble approach to life while also not being lukewarm to the sins of this world. As Mr. Rogers would often show children, there are many evils in this world and facing them with humility and grace is the way we should strive to live our life. As christians, at times we forget this and focus only on how not to sin rather than live holy life. It is for these reasons Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the perfect film for those needing to see someone living a life they proclaim to live, and is likely the best film of the year.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor, 2018, PG-13, Runtime: 94 minutes