Have you seen the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor yet?
Fred Rogers Documentary Review
By Rev. Dr. Darrell Knopp
2018 is an important year for looking again to the life and times of Fred Rogers. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the very first Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television show on WQED-TV in Pittsburgh.
The first ever full length biography of Mr. Rogers life, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, will be published and on bookstore shelves in early September. In the fall of 2019 a feature film, You Are My Friend starring Hollywood heavyweight Tom Hanks (as Mr. Rogers) will debut from Sony Pictures.
Each of these entrees will have to climb a large mountain to be favorably compared to the recent standard set by award-winning storyteller, Morgan Neville, Neville’s recent documentary of Fred Rogers life, is a near perfect portrayal of who Fred Rogers was/is and in 95 cinematic minutes, Neville speaks volumes with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
This stellar production is a deeply penetrating look into the heart and soul of this irreplaceable giant. Neville reaches out to (and into) the heart of a man who in turn reached into the lives of some estimated 5 to 10 million children with his powerful message of love.
Using ten different voices to address his audience with ten different puppets on a simple stage, made up as simple TV sets, Mr. Rogers was able to bring to life many important biblical concepts, such as “I like you just the way you are,” “love your neighbor,” “love yourself,” and perhaps most important, “always keep your heart open.”
Despite childhood illnesses which challenge a lonely little boy to use his imagination, he discovered creative ways to spend extended hours alone in bed. Forced to find ways to pass long days and nights, Neville shows us a person who, when his time had come, had learned to use the challenges of adversity to present to the whole world important Christ-like concepts without use of a pulpit.
Mary Rawson, a cast member (Cousin Mary) of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, had this to say about Neville’s work.
“It is wonderful the attention that the 50th Anniversary of the first Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood program is bringing to Fred Rogers work; that, and the excellent documentary by Morgan Neville , Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Without ever saying so to his audience, Neville allows us to see Mr. Rogers’ accomplishments as a direct reflection of who Fred was as a person and a believer.
To Neville’s credit, he allows Fred to tell the story, not Morgan Neville. This is a rare accomplishment in a documentary. Neville allows Rogers to share regarding his struggles as an ordained Presbyterian minister, feeling led by God to work in front of a television camera, working with and for the most vulnerable members of society, children, as his call to ministry.
So it is that Fred tells the story, by means of his faith, compassion, gentleness, openness, creativity, vulnerability and most of all, his Christ-like humility. Yet these words are seldom heard in this film to describe who Fred is.
Neville never gets in the way of the audience – he permits the subject of his work to tell the story.
n Pittsburgh, PA, there is a sign on the lawn in front of a house on Highland Avenue. The sign reads:
“No matter who you are, or where you’re from, you are my neighbor.”
Reading this sign, one cannot help but think of Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Two thousand plus years ago Jesus of Nazareth told the story of the Good Samaritan to challenge a hardened young man to keep his heart open to whoever his neighbor might be. Perhaps nobody since has done more to challenge all of us, especially the children, to do the same that Mister Rogers’ has done.
Allow us to again quote Ms. Rawson as to who she believed Fred Rogers to be:
“Fred was an amazing person who did such good work in this world, and I’m very happy that his message of total kindness and respect for others continues to reverberate. He never let the present pass without being fully engaged.”
“Fully engaged” is a wonderful description of audience response to the film. Neville neither exalts Fred for his goodness nor crucifies him for his faults. He simply tells the story of who Fred Rogers was and what Fred did. He allows the truth to tell the story, and the story is wonderful.
If you see this film, be prepared to laugh and to cry. Your inner child may surface, for good or ill. Mr. Rogers was a strong proponent that children should be permitted to express/show their feelings. Give yourself permission to do the same.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a worthy representation of who Fred Rogers was and continues to be. That’s high praise for this work. See the film. You will be blessed!
(Note: The Rev. Dr. Darrell Knopp is a retired Presbyterian minister who served on the Presbyterian Media Mission Board of Directors and now is a board member Emeritus. He served churches in Lake Erie, Kiskiminetas, and Pittsburgh Presbyteries. He is an avid movie goer/reviewer and Pittsburgh Pirate fan.)
Watch movie trailer by clicking on link below ….
Fred’s widow Joanne talks about the documentary click on the link below ….