So like many people, I watched a certain show called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child. And like a far smaller number, I also went to see the new documentary about this show entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor? And I also imagine that like most of the people who went to see the documentary, I probably hadn’t watched a real episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in over a decade.
Children’s programming is fascinating to me for a lot of different reasons. One of them is that children don’t overanalyze. Children don’t care about historical context. Children just know if they like something or it they don’t like it. Part of what makes Won’t You Be My Neighbor? so special is that it takes a show most of us are familiar with and provides that context we couldn’t understand as children.
As a child, I didn’t know that Mister Rogers had a 30-year legacy and I didn’t understand how remarkably rare it was for any television show to have a 30-year legacy. I didn’t understand that one of THE first rules of writing is “there must be conflict” and so the relatively peaceful neighborhood must’ve looked really silly as a concept on paper. I didn’t understand that it was monumental to cast a black man as a police officer or to share a swimming pool with him.
I don’t want to dwell too heavily on Won’t You Be My Neighbor? because in general, it’s the movie I expected it to be based on most of the ads I saw in my FaceBook feed. It does what it’s intended to do, and that’s awesome, but spending a ton of words to just summarize a movie you can hopefully see on your own if you’re interested seems pointless. So instead I want to talk about my personal experience with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
When we go see a movie, we form a relationship with it. And like any other relationship with an actual person, it’s about so much more than JUST that movie. It’s about our state of mind when we saw it. Maybe it’s about the audience we saw it with. It’s about that particular moment in our lives that happened to overlap with that particular movie. And so for that reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will always be special to me.
I’ve been having an emotional month. There’s some weird life changes happening right now and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about them. I’ve been incredibly reclusive considering I usually have to nag a friend and tell a 10-minute anecdote whenever the smallest inconvenience happens. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? came to me at a point when I really needed someone to tell me “It’s okay to be scared. Everyone gets scared. Emotions happen, it’s part of being human.” And while I’m not going to sit here and claim that watching this movie is a suitable replacement for therapy or friendship or anything like that, it was a reminder of how powerful cinema and documentaries can be.
The right movie in the right moment is enough to help pull us through tough times. And ultimately, I think that’s what the original vision of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was all about. It was grounded in a belief that TV could be so much more than just entertainment. It didn’t just have to be something that helped us forget the world for a half hour, it could be something that helped us get a firmer grasp on the world and connect with the humanity of others. And for that, we can all thank Fred Rogers.