The rumors are true about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the artful, unaffected documentary about children’s TV titan Fred Rogers by Morgan Neville (Oscar-winner in 2014 for “20 Feet from Stardom”). It will make even the most flint-hearted cynic shed a tear.
That first happened to me minutes into the film when a clip from one of the earliest episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is shown. The puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asks Lady Aberlin to blow up and deflate a balloon. When she does so he asks, “What does assassination mean?” Neville intercuts this moment with footage of Robert Kennedy bloody and dying after being shot in Los Angeles.
That was June 5, 1968. Many more assassinations, wars, trials, and tragedies would happen over the course of the show’s run (1,765 episodes on public television from 1968 to 2001), but Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, never lost his faith in the essential goodness of people. And he believed that children needed encouragement and protection, and that television was the best medium for conveying that message.
The film, which opens in Boston on June 8, offers many instances when that faith was fulfilled — a clip of Rogers singing a duet with a little boy in a wheelchair might also have you reaching for a handkerchief. It also explores the origins of that faith, featuring interviews with co-workers, guests (the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is especially entertaining), family members (one of Rogers’s sons reflects too briefly on what it was like to grow up with “the second Christ” as his father), and various experts.
Rogers’s empathy for children, it is suggested, came about in part because his own childhood was so difficult. He suffered from many childhood illnesses and was bedridden. For a time growing up he was overweight and taunted as “Fat Freddy.” The film speculates that Rogers expressed the resentment, anger, loneliness, and pain of those experiences through his puppet characters, especially the sad-faced, grudgingly tamed, increasingly threadbare Daniel Striped Tiger.
In animated interludes, Daniel serves as Rogers’s surrogate, a sometimes somber, sometimes jubilant inhabitant of a gloomy room empty except for a tiny bed. Such devices, and the film as a whole, threaten to slip into sentimentality. The reason they don’t is that the filmmakers, like their subject, remain simple, candid, and guileless in their approach to powerful emotions and difficult truths.
In his three-decade run, Rogers touched millions of souls. But the film is honest in questioning whether, in the end, he really made a difference. Especially disheartening are shots of protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church at a memorial service for Rogers after his death at 74 in 2003. Their signs carry homophobic slurs (although several interviewees say that Rogers wasn’t gay) and other repugnant messages. Some are carried by children.
Sadly, such opinions no longer come from just the fanatical fringe.
The notion of what constitutes a neighborhood and a neighbor has deteriorated these days into demands for deportations and a border wall. Hate, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism seem normalized. But after watching this film, the lyrics to Rogers’s theme song (and the film that shares its title) still ring true.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor ?
Directed by Morgan Neville. Opens June 8 at Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, and Kendall Square. 93 minutes. PG-13 (some thematic elements and language).