Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13)

Directed by: Morgan Neville
Starring: Joanne Rogers
June 2018

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The documentary spotlighting the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, takes us on a journey from Rogers’ humble beginnings as “Fat Freddy” all the way through his career as the host of a children’s variety program on PBS to his death in 2003, plus ruminations and speculations regarding the impact his life had on society. Strewn throughout Morgan Neville’s film are archival clips of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” interviews with Rogers’ family, coworkers, guests on his TV program (Yo-Yo Ma) and selected spoofs (Eddie Murphy) of Rogers, which he took with a gracious sense of humor. Despite the fact that he was captivated by the medium and felt it had incredible potential to educate kids, Rogers hated TV. He took it as a personal challenge to fill the programming gap with quality, substantive and meaningful content that had a positive message and affirmed that all kids…all people, are special. As a Presbyterian minister turned TV host, Rogers regarded kids as his congregation. Although he didn’t proselytize in the conventional sense, Rogers’ positive message of “love thy neighbor” (Mark 12:31) permeated the themes and topics of his show, a message needed now more than ever. In his later years, Rogers produced special shows that dealt with tragedies such as the Challenger explosion in 1986. Rogers never shied away from difficult issues such as divorce, death or unplanned pregnancy and used his child psychology background to soothe the fears of children during traumatic times ranging from Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination all the way up to 9-11. Rogers took flack for being a friend to the gay community and raised eyebrows during one of his shows when he invited a black man to wash his feet in the same kiddie pool where he was cooling off his feet. Also, Rogers’ message that everyone is special has been blamed for producing the narcissistic generations of kids who grew up during the decades his program was on the air. Dubious accusations aside, Rogers was a decent man who genuinely loved kids and, by all accounts, was the same on and off camera—a refreshing role model that stands in direct opposition to the scandalous scoundrels of our modern society (i.e., the Weinstein’s of the world). The only downside here is that, like Rogers’ show, Neighbor is slowly paced at times. On the plus side, the movie gives us generous glimpses into Rogers’ quirky mentality. The numerological significance of 143 in Rogers’ life is a fascinating aside. Times have changed and Rogers now seems like a milquetoast caricature of a 50s dad…and the sweaters do little to discourage that notion. Rogers is an effective barometer for how far we’ve descended from the kinder, nobler and more inclusive world portrayed in his neighborhood. At movie’s end, there’s a profound feeling of sadness; certainly at the passing of a great man, but also at the closing of an era. Will we ever again see such a period of decency and goodwill toward our fellow human beings? All things considered, this is an inspirational, tear-jerking documentary and a nostalgic trip for those of us who were privileged enough to grow up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So now the only question is: Won’t you be my neighbor?

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars