This film is straightforward in its presentation and doesn’t sugarcoat things at all.
By Ed Young
For over forty years, Mister Fred Rogers sincerely ask this question every day and we answered back with a resounding “YES!” Now for the first time Mister Rogers is asking us this time old question from the big screen in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Originally shown at film festivals such as Sundance and Boulder International, this gem of a film eventually made its way to art houses across the country gaining praise from critics and the public alike. With only showing on a limited number of screens, it still managed to break into the top ten performing films of June due to its success, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is being shown in neighborhood movie theaters across the country.
When I went to see this film, I was expecting a well-put-together documentary on one of my childhood icons and to learn some interesting facts on the making of the show that I was not already familiar with. While I did get all of this; I was blown away at the multitude of cameos, information, and emotions stirred in the ninety-three minutes of this film.
Archival recordings and film of Fred Rogers both on the sound stage but also in his personal life we’re touching and respectively done. Interviews and cameos from his wife Joanne Rogers, their two sons, Joe Negri (Handyman Negri), David Newell (Mr. McFeely), Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons), Yo-Yo Ma, and a plethora of co-workers and celebrities paint a vivid and intricate portrait of an iconic figure that many believe they know so well. But by the end of this film you will come to realize we had barely scratched the surface with getting to know him. (It should be noted that Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin) is noticeably absent from the interviews and it begs the question why as she was one of the longest running actors on the show.)
This film is straightforward in its presentation and doesn’t sugarcoat things at all. Controversies that occurred during the show’s run as well as concerns with certain subject matter covered over the run of the show are dealt with straightforwardly and with compassion. From enter race relations, to physically and mentally disabled children, to the Vietnam War, to feelings; Fred Rogers was not afraid to address them and help children understand and deal with them.
Starting with his upbringing in a Pittsburgh suburb and taking in-depth look at his deep religious roots, Rogers himself, via archival footage, talks of how he went into television because he hated what he saw and wanted to fix it. From a live, unscripted television show began the origins of the Mister Rogers Neighborhood that everyone knows today. The reasons for the change of clothes at the start of each episode, the origins of several iconic characters, and the reason to separate the world of reality from the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” are presented and straightforward and practical means with touches of humor here and there to keep the smile on your face.
A key piece of this film was archival footage from 1969 when Rodgers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications to gain support for funding PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in response to proposed budget cuts. After two days and hours upon hours of testimony, Rogers spoke for the need of social and emotional education that public television provides in roughly six minutes. The hurdle in front of Rogers was a chairman of the subcommittee Senator John O. Pastore of Rhode Island. Pastore was known for being blunt, short, and impatient with testimony; however, at the close of Rogers’ testimony he stated that it had given him goosebumps and declared, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
Throughout this film, viewers are treated to poignant stories from family, friends, and coworkers and bring some tissues because by the end the tears will be ready to go. Rogers personal views and thoughts are on full display including his special connection with the number “143”. You made a man
who came into television to make a difference with no formal training in education or child development and he made an impact will be felt for generations. Mr. Rogers taught us that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to get mad, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to be us and most importantly he remind us every day that we are special and he loved us.
Rarely, have I left a movie theater with such an overflow of thoughts and emotions. I went there for an informative documentary but what I got was an education and a trip down memory lane that I will treasure always.
For a piece of nostalgia and an experience like none other, be sure to make some time to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. It is still showing at the Regal Cinema at the Oviedo Mall.
Ed Young holds a Bachelors is Communication from Flagler College and a Masters in Education from Stetson University and has worked as a teacher in public and private schools in Central Florida for the last fourteen years. The study of history and politics, both local and national, is a personal interest of his. He is a longtime Seminole County resident, financial conservative, and advocate for conserving Florida’s natural resources. He currently serves as the Vice Chair for the Seminole County Soil & Water Conservation District where he represents Group 4.