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With: Joanne Rogers, McColm Cephas Jr., François Scarborough Clemmons, Kailyn Davis, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Morgan Neville
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and language
Running Time: 93
Date: 06/07/2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

You're Special to Me

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Warning: this documentary will make you cry. For folks of a certain age, who grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on TV, hosted by the reassuring Fred Rogers, this film will mean the world. And, like so many other movies, it means a lot more now than it would have two years ago, given that things like kindness and compassion have retreated underground in favor of meanness, fear, and hate.

Rogers hosted his children's show on public television from the mid 1960s, on and off until the early 2000s, making something north of 900 episodes. A minister who understood the psychology of children, he spoke directly to us kids and told us that things were OK, and that we had value in this world. He addressed things that other shows would never have considered, including feelings, death, divorce, anger, and time. His show's sheer quietness was in direct contrast to the usual distracting children's programming that continues to this day: noisy, and full of quick movements and bright colors.

Many have seen the clip of him testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1969, arguing for the keeping of Public Television, which Nixon wanted to shut down (and now Trump wants to do the same). Rogers's open-heartedness totally melts the committee head, and the case is won.

Directed by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom), Won't You Be My Neighbor? came about as he was working on his last film, The Music of Strangers, featuring famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma appeared on the Mister Rogers show as a young man, and it affected him greatly, making him work to be a more compassionate person, without letting fame go to his head. Neville became more curious about the power of this man. (It's also an interesting companion piece to his great Best of Enemies, another movie about television in the 1960s.)

His film could have been a sordid thing, trying to find holes in Rogers's life or a dark side to his kindness. The most common question is: how can anyone really be like that? But apparently there are no downsides. The worst one can say about Rogers is that he was very hard on himself, and worried that he wasn't doing enough. The documentary talks a little about a right-wing-led movement to discredit Rogers, blaming him for a generation of entitled young people, all of whom were told that they were "special," but today it's hard not to see this as ridiculous.

The film features many clips of Rogers at work, and talks about some of his bold experiments, like showing kids what an actual minute of silence looks like, or talking about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, or inviting quadriplegic Jeff Erlanger on the show for a warm and honest chat. It interviews people that worked with him, most surprisingly a hardened crew member who loved Rogers dearly and loved playing practical jokes on him; Rogers took the jokes well, with a smile. One of its main discoveries has to do with the puppet Daniel the tiger, which turns out to have been an alter-ego for Rogers himself, capable of saying things and getting to the heart of the matter whenever Rogers himself couldn't.

There's plenty more, but for me what elevates Won't You Be My Neighbor? to a level of greatness is when Neville himself chooses to follow one of Rogers's lessons. He asks each of his interviewees to do something that Rogers liked to ask: "take 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are." Neville shows absolute silence as the people do their thinking, some smiling, some starting to get a little misty around the eyes. Afterward, off camera, Neville sometimes admits who he was thinking about during that time, and of course, we in the audience are also thinking of our people.

Indeed the movie's point isn't so much to be a juicy expose on a TV celebrity, but to ask hard questions about how he was in the world, and to ask: why can't there be more like him? How many of us, today, right now, are brave enough and kind enough to be another Mr. Rogers?

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