WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? US, 2018. Directed by Morgan Neville. 97 miinutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language)
A genial question for a title. This is the story of Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh man, intending to be a Minister for the Presbyterian Church, fascinated by television, establishing a children’s program which ran for decades, becoming a Minister, being a significant person in the lives of many children as well as adults.
This is a review – and it is followed by a reflection, a disturbing reflection about our attitudes towards people today, especially suspicions and wariness.
As a film, this is very engaging. Fred Rogers is dead but he lives on in so many images from his program as well as interviews from his life throughout the decades. His show was very simple. No elaborate sets. He voiced various characters, especially a small puppet called Daniel became something of his alter ego throughout the programs. He was assisted at various times by producers and set assistants who are very strong in their memories and praise of him.
He was very much an entertainer of his times, especially in the decade of Civil Rights and Vietnam, courageous enough to raise serious issues for his audience, the nature of war, the reality of mothers and fathers falling out of love and separating. He was also an advocate of Civil Rights and the place of African-Americans, incorporating a singer, François Clemmons, into his stories – symbolised by a sequence where it is a hot day and he has his feet in a tub of water, hosing them and he invites the African-American policeman to join him to cool his feet, no segregation even in cooling off on hot day. (The actor-singer was a gay man, something Fred Rogers did not realise but retained the friendship and supported him even advising him not to make this public at the time.)
There are some very heartwarming sequences in the film, his ease in mixing with the smallest of children, making them welcome, a boy confined to a wheelchair enjoying singing with him (and later, as an adult, coming on stage and a tribute).
The various commentators, including his wife and son, speculate on the childlike simplicity of Fred Rogers’ attitude towards people and life, his recognition of goodness, and his statement of being true to the best in ourselves.
And the reflection?
In recent decades, with the revelations of abusive behaviour of adults towards children, of grooming, many of us are automatically on the alert, suspicious of adults and the behaviour towards children. In fact, at some stages, this happened to Fred Rogers. Critics, journalists, singled out his philosophy of being happy with whom one really is and stating that this led to a spoilt generation adults who are self-satisfied, unwilling to do anything for others. And then, there were some sexual implications, rumour-mongering that he was a gay man and casting aspersions on his role as a television personality for children.
This is the world we have come to live in, revelations of the abuse of children, authorities wanting to do their best to safeguard children – which has led to almost a guilty until proven innocent attitude towards those who do good in society (a consequence of disillusionment with so many abusive clergy of the different denominations and different religions).
This is a reality, but it is a pity. This documentary, with its warmth and charm, shows Fred Rogers was a good man.
Released September 13th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.