Top of the Docs #2 – ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’, The Man Who Raised a Generation

“So let’s make the most of this beautiful day

Since we’re together, we might as well say

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Won’t you be my neighbor?”

The opening lyrics to ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ welcome viewers to the TV show as Fred Rogers and his warm smile enters the frame. Rogers was a father figure, the face of children’s TV, and an educator to a nation. After his death in 2003, Morgan Neville’s documentary revives Rogers’ spirit through archival footage and interviews with those closest to him. The documentary is named after his TV show, offering a nostalgic link and offering a glimpse behind the TV screen artifice, the camera and the lights, in search of the man that is at the heart of it. 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has re-entered the conversation with the approaching release of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood with Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers. There is something magical about the resurfacing of Rogers into popular culture and the minds of modern audiences and this is shared in the honest grounding in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Almost as if in these times of uncertainty and constant worry, we need a figure to trust in. Rogers is exactly that; a father figure who has your best interests at heart, he is a role model in moments of doubt.

The life and legacy of Fred Rogers is moving. The documentary pieces together Roger’s existence mainly through his appearances on his own show. Cutting between archival footage and interviews with those who knew him, it speaks for itself the amount of family, friends and colleagues that were willing to give their time to interviews about a man they all loved so dearly. Neville carves a documentary narrative that engagingly guides viewers through Rogers’ fame, personal life and career criticisms.

One essential facet of the documentary stresses the importance of Rogers work on a psychological and social level. He spoke to children in a way that acknowledged their emotional responses share the complexity and intensity of adults. Helping process tragedy, Rogers dedicated himself to teaching through storytelling. A week of shows was dedicated to death, grief and mourning. Something that seems so oppositional to the usual bubbly, lighthearted children’s entertainment. It was particularly an issue of what children were watching that spurred Rogers on to create a show that spoke to children without being patronising.

a shot of Mr Rogers with a toy train set on the set of his tv show
Tremolo Productions

This centralised approach of children’s TV was key to Rogers’ approach. Confronting the government about this very fact: “We need to help our children become more and more aware that what is essential in life is invisible to the eye.” There is the implication that Rogers spoke to children through the TV screen in a way that he wished he was spoken to as a child. He conceptualised American childhood on the basis of individual uniqueness. While he was making a show for the masses, he made sure that he spoke into the camera, and therefore to the child, with all the love he could muster. Tackling issues of gender, race, disability, equality and tragedy, Rogers formed a basis of entertainment for American childhood understanding.

Rogers own childhood is discussed by interviewees, reflecting on a troubled time where he was tested and bullied. Now in adulthood, using puppets, Rogers was able to play out his own journey self-healing in front of millions. While Rogers personal childhood issues are discussed, they are not delved into. Walking this line between exploration and sensitivity makes Won’t You Be My Neighbour a wonderful investigation into this individual’s impactful career.

In the discussion of Rogers difficult childhood being overcome by storytelling and comedy; a quote from Robin Williams comes to mind: “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” Rogers entire career was dedicated to giving others the chance at a childhood he never had. 

Neville’s directorial touch is careful with its inclusion of Roger’s career criticism. Holding his character for questioning briefly, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? avoids being reductive in the thoughtfulness of presenting Rogers in a different light.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour? is a documentary that works as a character study but in doing so, tells the tale of one man that taught so many children how to love, believe and trust themselves. The emotional, heartfelt reflections of Rogers’ loving impact are sincerely felt in the times they are needed.

Director: Morgan Neville.

Producers: Morgan Neville, Caryn Capotosto, and Nicholas Ma.

Available: Streaming on Netflix