Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the story of American children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers, directed by documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville, and currently holds the record for the highest-grossing biographical documentary. Although it is as much a philosophical documentary as a biographical presentation of Fred Rogers’ life and work. In fact, the film serves more as a biography of Rogers’ work informed by his life philosophy.
Neville presents the likelihood that Rogers experienced a lot of loneliness as a child. He says that he suffered almost every imaginable childhood disease, a situation that led to him spending a lot of his childhood in bed, daydreaming and imagining, and listening to music. Music, he says, helped him to express the fears and anxieties that he was otherwise unable to articulate. What this documentary fascinatingly shares is that Fred as an adult used the same methods to deal with his emotions and to communicate emotion to children in order to guide them in their own emotional development.
This can be traced back to his early years. Rogers was preparing to go to seminary to become a minister when, in his senior year, he went home for a vacation and saw television for the first time. Thinking television could be a wonderful tool if used properly, Rogers decided to postpone seminary and first go into television. He worked on a program called The Children’s Corner on the local educational television channel. It was there he formed some of his nascent ideas about programming for children and first used puppeteering as an improvised solution to a technical issue in production. His puppetry would become an integral part of his communication with children on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Rogers eventually stopped The Children’s Corner to focus on seminary, becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister. He was able to take what he had learned working in television and add to that a sense of ministry. He also added a background in child development, which he gained by being a part of the group of scholars researching child development at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1950s.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered in 1968 with low production values, periods of quiet, deliberative activity, and a sense of stillness almost meditative, qualities opposite those considered at the time to make good television for children. Even Mister Rogers’ classic changing of his sweater and shoes was calming and showed child viewers that this was to be a time of relaxation as a community. The show featured a real world in which humans characters came to visit Mister Rogers as well as the Land of Make Believe, a fictional world accessed by train (and perhaps prefiguring Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express), in which humans interacted with the puppet citizens (all voiced by Rogers) of the land, led by the benevolent despot King Friday the 13th.
Rogers used the personalities of people in his life to create characters in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Through these characters, expressed as puppets, Rogers communicated the emotions of childhood, which he considered to be equally powerful and meaningful as adult emotions. The neighbourhood was a place of understanding, safety, and belonging, but also one of the conflict that comes from diverse people living in community. Rather than simply entertaining or provoking children with outlandish antics, Fred created meaningful interactions between characters that addressed deep concerns of childhood, often based on dramatic current events, such as racism in America, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and the space shuttle Challenger disaster. He also produced a week of television on the topic of death and talked to children about divorce, revealing bolder content than what the surface of the show would indicate.
Rogers said: “What we see and hear on the screen is part of what we become.” He considered the relationship through the television screen to be holy ground. He believed that adults had a responsibility to preserve children’s dignity and to protect children from people ever-ready to shape and construct their worlds. His main message, that children are likeable and lovable just as they are, informed every aspect of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and also gave him the confidence to continue writing and producing when he was confronted with doubts about his own creative abilities.
The film makes clear that his idea that love keeps everything going and is the root of all action proceeds from his Christian faith. However, his faith is infused in his work rather than a declaration. He never identified himself as an ordained minister. His theology was inclusive and based on the tenet of loving one’s neighbour and oneself. These themes of love and inherent worth return again and again in the film, culminating toward the end in a statement by Junelei Li, the former director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. Li draws a distinction between critics’ accusations that Mister Rogers promoted entitlement and Fred Rogers’ real message that everyone has inherent value, saying that to disregard the real message is to disavow the fundamental notion of Christianity, that each person is endowed by his or her creator with good.
One curious absence from the film is how Rogers developed his faith and spiritual sensibilities. At one point Rogers speaks of his mother telling him to “always look for the people that are helping,” that someone is always helping, but no greater sense of his parentage or his own crucially influential spiritual development is present. This gives the effect of imbuing Mister Rogers with an almost-mystical quality, as though he formed his own inner world and values without outside influence.
The omission of early influences is the one lacking aspect. However, this absence of information does not prevent viewers from engaging deeply with his story, just as Mister Rogers did not have to know children’s individual biographies to engage deeply with them.
We want to believe that people like Fred Rogers exist and are really who they present themselves to be. The most important value of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is showing a person that created his public self and service from his private values. The film is very worthwhile viewing regardless of a person’s interests in the specifics of the children’s television genre and subject matter or familiarity with the history of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.