Look for the helpers.
I remember watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a kid, but couldn’t have told you anything about it besides the fact that Fred Rogers would trade his jacket for a cardigan and eventually let us travel to his Neighborhood of Make-Believe. To me it was the aesthetic that grabbed hold—the trolley trip to a world of puppets and fantasy that brought to life the little maquettes on his shelf. So I always thought the entire endeavor was a bit of a spectacle, an educational show that knew what it was and leaned into its mission. I saw Rogers as a teacher with his deliberate cadence and seemingly infinite well of patience. I saw the production as a team of writers and performers coming together to do something we desperately needed.
And to a point I was correct. As Morgan Neville‘s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? shows, there was a whole crew working to help bring this prolific piece of American television to life. Where I was wrong, however, is the fact that Rogers was its sole steward. He was its creator, author, puppeteer, and, through its unparalleled success, became a voice of reason and empathy for generations. Every single detail from voices used, words measured, and topics presented was meticulously composed to earn maximum impact. Nothing could threaten to alienate one single viewer because every child watching was as important as the next. They were all special in his eyes, all worthy of being whom they wanted to be regardless of the external pressures he sought to dismantle.
The film is constructed as a timeline of the show itself: from precursor “The Children’s Corner” to a failed prime-time spin-off to its weekly topical format. It’s through his programming that we learn about the man rather than the other way around because they became interchangeable in both his public and private lives. This Presbyterian minister put himself on-camera with all his insecurities, beliefs, and compassion. We don’t therefore need to know too much about his childhood or upbringing until facts about them can infer on decisions made during his fifty-year career on television. Anyone watching his programs knew exactly who he was and trusted him—not some fictional character—to guide them forward when nobody else could. There was no artifice where Fred Rogers himself was concerned.
The longevity of his career also provides Neville the latitude to document the course of American history through Rogers’ poignant messaging. Fred held our youth’s hands during Vietnam, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the tragedy of 9/11. He forever proved a steadying figure within tumultuous times, one who was unafraid to broach tough subjects whether metaphorically or literally. But he wasn’t infallible. He wasn’t without his own struggles (using voices at home to express tough emotions) or difficult choices (weighing his private acceptance of friend and costar François Scarborough Clemmons‘ homosexuality against the reality of how the latter being “out” would potentially damage the show’s success). Rogers wasn’t a perfect man, but he did his best and ultimately served as a product of the very lessons he preached.
So while the numerous interviewees do have little to say about their friend and family member removed from love and adoration, Neville makes sure to not simply gloss over Rogers’ struggles. He uses candid footage of this joyous man’s growing futility without shying from the notion that time took its toll as far as changing Rogers’ identity from the sweetly innocent Daniel the Tiger to the benevolent yet domineering King Friday XIII. But this sense of combating the growing trends of TV as it became louder and more dangerous while parodies of him risked subverting his message isn’t the only means of giving Rogers’ necessary three-dimensionality. There are also glimpses of a keen sense of humor to prove he was far from the pretentious “square” public perception presumed.
The one constant throughout this journey is empathy. Whether on-set, at-home, or faced with a Congressional hearing that risked to defund the entirety of public broadcasting—Fred Rogers was resolutely passionate about our country’s need to assist its children in confronting the very real and difficult emotions within. Where others in his position would have used his venue and reach as a means to indoctrinate, Rogers fought to deprogram America’s youth from the inherent racial, religious, and economic biases society constructs. He sought to approach them early enough so that they wouldn’t bottle up their anger and frustrations like he and wife Joanne had to during their own adolescence. He knew that children could handle complex topics and be better off experiencing their weight earlier rather than later.
Some of this may seem obvious to long-time fans of Rogers’ programs, but to others it can be eye-opening—especially opposite today’s bile-fueled rhetoric that even tried to defile his legacy (see Fox News pundits warping Fred’s message to their own means of turning our children into consumers-in-training rather than autonomous souls able to embrace non-conformity). With a world and administration dead-set on alienating those who are different from an aging and increasingly irrelevant status quo, we need Rogers’ lessons more than ever. Here was a lifetime member of the Republican Party that understood the values of Christianity above its potential to be politicized for evil. Here was a man that led with kindness and understanding that all humanity was equal and deserving of love no matter what.
 Fred Rogers on the set of his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood from the film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jim Judkis
 Fred Rogers (left) with Francois Scarborough Clemmons (right) from his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in the film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a Focus Features release. Credit: John Beale
 Fred Rogers testifying before the United States Senate in the film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a Focus Features release. Credit: Robert Lerner / Library of Congress