Starring: Fred Rogers, Francois Clemmons, Joanne Rogers
Directed by: Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”)
Seventeen years after airing its last episode in August 2001, the educational children’s TV series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is revisited by Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”) in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It’s a touching, feature-length documentary that takes audiences back to the original 1963 PBS series and its unassuming, philosophical and soft-spoken host Fred Rogers (1928-2003).
At a time when this country seems to be politically imploding, “WYBMN?” is a subtle beam of light at a dark and divisive moment in history that should encourage viewers to take a step back and be reminded that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. Consider it a refresher course on kindness.
It might sound like an idealistic message delivered by someone who never read the comments section at Breitbart, but it was the basic premise of all 1,765 episodes Rogers and crew presented to children for nearly four decades. In “WYBMN?,” Neville taps into those pure, childhood emotions with tenderness and compassion, and allows audiences to take from it what they may. Whether it’s simply a happy, 94-minute tour down memory lane with puppets and props or recognizing that a show like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” confronted complex topics, some of which are still relatable, “WYBMN?” translates well into the current climate.
Depending on where you are on the political spectrum, a scene where the TV show’s first episode features a royal puppet pronouncing his plans to build a wall around his kingdom because he is “afraid of change,” might have Trump supporters crying about the Hollywood elite and the liberal media attempting to indoctrinate their youth, but it is a timely issue nonetheless.
In one of the most poignant scenes pulled from the original show, Neville reexamines the groundbreaking move by Rogers to dip his bare feet into a kiddie pool and invite his friend Officer Clemmons (Francois Clemmons), an African-American policeman who worked in the “Neighborhood,” to join him. This was during a time in America when desegregated public swimming pools were still a contentious topic among racist whites who didn’t want to share public pools with blacks.
“WYBMN?” will likely become the definitive film on Rogers. Neville packages fascinating archival footage and recent interviews with those who knew him to create an enjoyable tribute to an entertainer who has yet to be matched in style and personality. Moreover, since it’s obvious that many people these days have forgotten what they learned in kindergarten, there are lessons in “WYBMN?” on inclusivity, love and respect that every viewer should take to heart.