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SIFF Documentary Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Come for the nostalgia, stay for the uplifting truth about Mister Rogers

“Love is at the root of everything… love or the lack of it.” Fred Rogers stares directly into the camera, looking slightly melancholy as he finishes his thought.

Rogers, better known to generations of American children as Mr. Rogers from his public television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, seemed to do everything with great love. This was clear from all the footage of Rogers and interviews with friends and family in the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” which I viewed as part of the Seattle International Film Festival.

The film opens in theaters this week.

It was his particular love and care for children that fueled him to write and star in 895 episodes of the show over the course of 32 years, from 1968 to 2001.

Rogers initially retired from the show in December 2000, but after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, he was asked to come back and do some more episodes to help children and parents cope with the tragedy.

In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” we also learn that Rogers actually had a television show before “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. In 1954, he was fascinated by the potential power of the new medium of television and delayed his plans of going to Presbyterian seminary to instead start a program called “The Children’s Corner.”

After a while he became unsatisfied with that show and went to seminary. He also spent a lot of time in the 1950’s learning from many people at the University of Pittsburgh that were doing a lot of groundbreaking research on early childhood education and child psychology.

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was what Rogers created based on everything he had learned about child development and from his previous TV work, and was impassioned to do it all with a sense of ministry. “Television has a chance of building a real community of the whole country,” he said.

One thing that really made his show unique was that they would address real issues on the show, it wasn’t just all fun and fast-paced like many children’s shows were and are. Things that were happening in the Neighborhood of Make Believe often mirrored things that were happening in real life.

In one episode, Rogers invites the character of Officer Clemmons, played by Francois Clemmons, who is African American, to take a break and join Rogers, who is sitting in his yard with his feet in a children’s pool.

Rogers was incredibly bold to make a statement like this in 1969, when public pools were one of many locales currently embroiled in the segregation debate.

The show also often focused on emotions and feelings. Rogers firmly believed that “children have deep feelings, just the way everybody does” and that adults need to share with children that “feelings are manageable and mentionable.”

In one episode, Daniel Striped Tiger sings a song called “Sometimes I Wonder if I’m a Mistake,” in which he essentially talks about being insecure.

He feels weak, scared, and like he is a fake. Lady Aberlin tried to reassure him that he is fine as he is, that he is her best friend and she likes him.

Now most shows, if they even had a song or dialogue as deep as the words to “Sometimes I Wonder if I’m a Mistake,” would at this point have Daniel accept Lady Aberlin’s comfort and feel better, and everything moves along all Happily Ever After.

But not Mister Rogers.

Daniel and Lady Aberlin each simultaneously sing their verses again, then Daniel presses her further, asking if she really likes him as he is.

Daniel continuing to doubt himself and to struggling to believe that Lady Aberlin really cares for him the way he is shows how normal it is for people to feel that way, and how hard it is to overcome doubt.

It was at this point in the press screening of the film that I heard some gasping noises from the man next to me. I tentatively turned and looked past the empty seat in between us, and realized that he was crying.

This is why Mister Rogers was so important.

He helped young children (and adults!) understand and deal with their emotions, and let them know that having strong feelings is not just ok, but normal.

Talking about what he does, Rogers said: “I give an expression of care each day to each child.”

He wanted every child to know that they are special, that each person is valuable, “that you don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you.”

Rogers was sensational, and he was loved by generations of American children.

I highly recommend seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for Rogers and his work, and perhaps be uplifted and inspired to live a more mission-driven life yourself.

One Comment

  1. Pearl Whitney
    Posted June 15th, 2018 at 10:28 AM | Permalink

    Had not heard about this film. I will make plans to go see it. Thank you!