Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
For many of us, Mr. Fred Rogers was the first superstar we idolized – and our very best friend. His calm demeanor, warm tone of voice, and inquisitive nature made us feel safe and cared for every time we tuned into his ground-breaking program, MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOOD. Even as adults, the mere mention of his show evokes cozy memories of a bygone era. Times have changed, and despite Mr. Rogers no longer being a part of them, his enduring legacy and genius live on through director Morgan Neville’s resplendent documentary, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?. Once the tears start flowing, and assuredly they will, they won’t stop.
Rogers’ quintessential question, from which Neville’s documentary takes its name, is the audience’s invitation to learn from one man’s crusade to put generosity into the world without any personal ego. His sincerity, authenticity and sweet spirit radiate throughout. It’s a bonanza of information about the show and its creator – from the incredible behind-the-scenes stories of the crew (like the ribald story involving a photo of their naked behinds), to the intimate details his family divulges about Rogers’ struggle to contextualize evil (like 9/11) for children in a rapidly changing landscape.
In a sadly rare dichotomy, Rogers’ personal beliefs tended towards the conservative, yet he treated his diverse cast and friends with benevolence and grace. Rogers was Presbyterian and Republican, but he never toed the church or party line on anything except treating people with respect and compassion. Taboo topics like assassinations and war were never off the table when it came to his show. He provided comfort and understanding for his young viewers (and possibly their parents too). Nixon and his cronies threatened to cut funding to PBS. Rogers responded with staggering empathy. He and his widow Joanne also had many gay friends – including cast member François Scarborough Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the TV show. The stories Clemmons shares, dealing with Rogers’ progressive way of viewing society, are amongst this film’s most powerful. To hear him recount one particular anecdote about Rogers’ oft-repeated phrase will automatically bestow audiences with drenched faces.
Neville’s observational style opens many windows into Rogers’ radical, unique way of seeing the world, for all its good and bad. Revelations like how many suspected Rogers’ most symbiotic creation was his tiger puppet Daniel, and that he struggled with self-doubt (like any real creative artist does), are thoughtful touches rounding out a humanistic portrait of this saintly soul. Plus, it doesn’t shy away from showing a man defeated by current world horrors, or his later-years temperament showing signs of curmudgeonly puppet King Friday. Though I wish it would have delved a bit more into his kids’ feelings about sharing their famous father with the world, what’s there is sufficient.
Similar to PADDINGTON 2’s teachings on kindness and community, the ripple effect this documentary creates is ever-growing – one our world so desperately hungers for in times of chaos and crisis. It makes audiences wish this innovator was still with us to make sense of an upside-down world. His inspirational lessons remain, but only if people keep them alive through practice.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR is now playing.