Won't You Be My Neighbor?

 

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A dead figure from children's television with a message for us now.

 
Won't You Be My Neighbor
 

In the sphere of documentary features, this latest work by Morgan Neville, best known until now for 2013's 20 Feet from Stardom, has broken all previous box-office records in America. That is clearly due in part to the fact that Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a film about the TV celebrity Fred Rogers (1928 - 2003) whose shows for children made him famous throughout the United States. Few in this country will know him, so it is important to make it clear that Neville's documentary is likely to have a strong impact even on those who have never heard of Rogers. Although this is not a film that is always perfectly judged, many viewers will understandably find it inspirational.

 

Rogers's widow Joanne and their two sons John and Jim comment to camera and we hear from others who worked with him or became his friends (one of the latter being the cellist Yo-Yo Ma). However, extracts from the TV programmes, notably from the long-running series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, together with other existing footage means that Fred Rogers himself is absolutely the central figure here. He was unique in that, although his Christian beliefs led him to be ordained, he nevertheless decided that the greatest contribution he could make would be to devote himself to being the host of a television programme aimed at young children in a protective way. This was born of his belief in Christian morality and in the need to value others, but he never allowed himself to become a promoter of Christianity as such which he would have seen as too narrow an approach.

 

The film's title stems from the TV series and his use in it of songs that he composed himself and the initial impression is of Rogers coming over as saccharine sweet. That is one of two misjudgments here (the other being the familiar fault of hanging on too long in the film's final moments). When a child on the programme is assured by Rogers that "I like you as you are," it sounds sentimental and this film would have done better to reveal from the outset what made him a radical.

 

Worried about the impact of violence on television seen by the very young, he wanted to offer reassurance but to do so by discussing such matters as death and divorce in terms that would help youngsters to cope with such issues. Consequent on the killing of Bobby Kennedy he discussed assassination too. Later on his soft side would be parodied by Eddie Murphy and others - but what really counted, along with the relaxed pacing which he favoured and which is lost today, were his liberal views. A colleague who appeared on the show, Francois Clemmons, takes part in this film. He was black and gay and, although Rogers accepted his sexuality, he felt it necessary on account of the times to keep the fact of having gay friends private. In contrast to that, Rogers went out of his way to espouse equality for the black community on his show in a very open manner as shown here in a clip featuring Clemmons. It has not escaped Neville's notice that Rogers, having suffered bullying in childhood, responded to it by asking for understanding in place of condemnation and thus represented all the liberal attitudes that now seem to be anathema to President Trump. This may be a film about the past but its attraction in 2018 lies in a reminder needed by so many today: that the deeply humane attitudes which made Rogers what he was are not necessarily dead and gone, even if at times we are tempted to fear that they are.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Joanne Rogers, John Rogers, Jim Rogers, Francois Clemmons, Rev George Wirth, Yo-Yo Ma, Junlei Li, Bill Isler, Hedda Sharapan, Max King, Margaret Whitner, Joe Negri, Nick Tallo, Tom Junod.

 

Dir Morgan Neville, Pro Morgan Neville, Caryn Capotosto and Nicholas Ma, Ph Graham Willoughby, Ed Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden, Music Jonathan Kirkscey.

 

Tremolo Productions-Park Circus.
94 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 9 November 2018. Cert. 12A.