Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Yes, I would, Fred.)

Touching. Timely. Inspiring. Infuriating.

I, like millions of other children from my generation, grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Living just 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, I watched it on his home station, WQED – PBS Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

His gentle demeanor, memorable opening song, iconic sweater, simple puppets, and the ever-cool red trolley are indelible parts of my childhood. I enjoyed the show, but soon out-grew it, and never really thought of its overall impact until I watched the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” from film-maker Morgan Neville.

If you haven’t seen it, please go. I’ll briefly put my thoughts on the movie in relationship to the four words above.

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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood Display @ Heinz Museum, Pittsburgh, PA  – Photo by MWS

Touching. There are many touching moments in this film. Fred Rogers had the ability to reach the hearts of those he spoke to – and not only children. One of the most remarkable parts of the film is watching the many interviewees listen to a short clip of Fred telling people to think for one minute about a person who made a difference in their lives. Of course, Fred framed the scenario in such a lovely way, that every single one of the interviewees teared up. He encouraged them to slow down, think, remember, and cherish those people who made them who they are. Some answered ‘Mom’ others a relative or friend, one said ‘Fred.’  All of them were unmasked in a beautiful way by Fred’s amazing ability to speak to the soul of an individual. It was a perfect scene.

Timely. In this day and age of everything being hyper-politicized, Fred’s message of love and acceptance to the children he had passion for is such a tremendous message. One, albeit, lost daily on the TV airwaves. Just a quick perusal of TV channels this Sunday evening made this all the more real. The plethora of choices available were dearth of heart, meaning, sincerity, and substance – all of which Fred displayed in abundance, not only on his show but as a person in real life. Be like Fred, everyone. It should be a motto on a t-shirt.

Inspiring. As an educator, I walked away from the movie truly inspired. The way he spoke to children, the way he listened to children, the way he advocated for children, and the way he educated children has, I believe, never been matched. He tackled difficult topics with care and heart (here’s that word again). Topics like war, assassination, divorce, racism, acceptance, disabilities, etc… while the rest of TV land droned on in a flashy drivel void of meaning or substance. Watching this movie made me want to be a better teacher.

Infuriating. I was not upset at Fred at all. How could I be? Well, it seems that some people can be upset at just about anyone. If you can find fault in the public discourse and actions of one Fred Rogers, you’d probably would have lined up in glee to watch the decapitation of the Apostle Paul.  Seriously, what is wrong with people? Some pundits have blamed Mr. Rogers’ philosophy of telling children that they are good and lovable and worthy of love as a message which has poisoned a whole generation by making a bunch of spoiled, entitled brats who feel they don’t need to work for anything because Fred Rogers told them that they are special. If I can be frank, what kind of idiot analysis is that?  If you have a problem with telling every child that they are unique and special and lovable, then you have a problem. In fact, the philosophy of Fred Rogers is, in my view, one of the keys that the world desperately needs if we are ever going to bridge the divides which have pulled us apart.

Thank you, Morgan Neville, for bringing this touching and timely reminder of what decency and civility really is. I wish someone would bring it back to children’s television.

This is a film I highly recommend.

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