There’s something special about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s documentary about Fred Rogers — the man millions of us knew and watched as the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
There doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about the film, really. It’s a pretty straightforward look at Fred Rogers, a pretty straightforward man. His closets are free of skeletons, at least as far as anything we learn here. He didn’t take off the sweater, leave the set and go home and kick his dog.
In fact, we learn from the people interviewed here, and from archival interviews of Rogers (who died in 2003), that the man we saw on television, voicing King Friday XIII or Daniel Striped Tiger, or chatting amiably with Mr. McFeely or Officer Clemmons, was remarkably like the off-camera man.
Well, he is. His often-repeated mantra — that we’re special and he likes us just the way we are — applies to Neville’s film, proving once again that Mr. Rogers knew what he was talking about. It’s a zenlike break from ugly divisions and social-media posturing. It’s an hour-and-a-half of peace, a movie that exists beyond cynicism and irony.
What are the dopey lines people quote whenever they want to cover for their emotions? I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying. Well that’s stupid. I AM crying, and you will, too.
Rogers was about to attend the seminary when he noticed TV programming for kids consisted largely of people throwing pies in each others’ faces. (Rogers didn’t watch much TV.) He got the notion that, instead of becoming a Presbyterian minister, he could create a safe space, as we might call it today, for kids in this new medium.
He went about it in an unusual way. As one person remembers, Rogers took all the conventional wisdom about how to make a TV show for children and did the opposite. Quiet instead of noise, sometimes actual silence. No pies in the face. Discussion of difficult topics, including the war in Vietnam, death (told by way of his unfortunate goldfish, buried on-camera), divorce, bullying and more.
All of this was delivered by a gentle man, whose mannerisms were easily parodied (the film shows some of the better ones, like Eddie Murphy’s “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” from “Saturday Night Live” — and shows a photo of Rogers and Murphy meeting). But Rogers knew something the grown-ups didn’t: the kids understood.
We hear from Rogers’ wife and his sons. I wondered how his own children might have felt about sharing their father with so many other people, but it doesn’t come up. It seems hard to begrudge the guy for wanting to reach so many people. We also hear from cast members.
François Scarborough Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons, among other characters, is black and gay; he was only allowed to acknowledge one of those things on the show. There’s a moving bit in which Rogers, having seen a report in which black children were kicked out of a pool for swimming with white children, invites Officer Clemmons to soak his feet in the same pool with him. Quietly, firmly, importantly, the point is made.
Clemmons also talks about how Rogers told him that while he was part of the show, he couldn’t go to the gay bar in Pittsburgh he frequented, and that while Rogers didn’t care about his sexuality, he couldn’t acknowledge it on the show. But even that comes to an emotional understanding, and Clemmons clearly loves Rogers, still.
Not everyone loved Rogers, of course, or the show. There’s a segment in which Fox News commentators and other conservatives decry Rogers, blaming him for a generation of grown-ups who feel entitled because Mr. Rogers told them they were special when they were young, no matter who they were. This is idiocy of the first order; what’s most disappointing about it is how that moronic line of thinking would be right at home in today’s cultural debate.
But Rogers could win anyone over. There’s the footage, popular on YouTube and social media, where Rogers pretty much singlehandedly saves $20 million in funding for public television by his testimony at a congressional hearing. One of his puppets talks to Tom Snyder, the late, sometimes eccentric late-night host, and Snyder just melts.
Neville, who won an Oscar for “20 Feet from Stardom,” could have gone a different route, maybe tried to dig up some dirt. But there really doesn’t seem to be any. I don’t know if it’s Rogers’ influence, but I like this film just the way it is.
Focus Features presents a documentary directed by Morgan Neville. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic elements and language). Running time: 94 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.