When he committed himself to creating his moving documentary about children’s television series creator and host Fred Rogers, director Morgan Neville consciously avoided making a traditional “bio-doc.” Instead, in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” he chose to focus on Mr. Rogers’ ideas. In so doing, he presents a more honest picture not only of the man but also of his legacy as a beloved cultural icon.
“His ideas, to me, are why this film in a way feels like the most current thing I’ve worked on, because his ideas are exactly the ideas I want in the cultural conversation at this moment,” the Pasadena resident explains with a rueful laugh. “Because when he’s talking about neighborhoods, he’s talking about society: how do we treat each other and how do we treat ourselves. I feel like it’s a lesson in Civics 101, a reminder of what our social compact is by which we should be living.”
The film takes its title from the theme song for “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the public television program broadcast under different titles throughout the 1960s, initially on local stations in Toronto and Pittsburgh, and which by the 1970s had become a PBS institution. It’s all but impossible to imagine a show with such determinedly lo-fi production values succeeding now, or accruing the cultural significance that Mr. Rogers enjoyed for decades until his death in 2003. The unassuming, cardigan-wearing Presbyterian minister employed simple conversation and hand puppets to connect with children. There were no fast edits between scenes. There were no buff, superhero-sized actors in his “Neighborhood,” no loud show-biz branding. Rogers offered sweetness, sincerity and kindness.
Those old-fashioned qualities get lampooned now, but they endeared him to his audience. The film shows him relaxing on beach dunes, gazing out at the ocean, in scenes that illuminate the sense of wonder he often expressed about life and nature — wonder children appreciated because it mirrored their own.
Interestingly, Rogers as a minister sought to instill certain values in children — but not overtly religious concepts.
“He studied all religions deeply, and not just Christian religions but Judaism and Islam,” Neville says. “He spoke Hebrew, and Greek. He was looking for the basic humanism that exists in virtually all the world’s religions. … It’s a reason why he also never said ‘God’ in his show. To him it was a humanist point of view that often seems lost in the vitriol of our culture.”
Rogers expressed those values by quietly championing a public commons where tolerance and civility are the norm. Episodes in which he calmly talked with children about fraught issues such as divorce and racism became landmark moments in the national conversation and television history. They represented Rogers’ ongoing effort to utilize television’s power to help improve communications between people. His deliberate manner of speaking, even the clarity of his consonants, reflected the thought invested in his words; he clearly hoped listeners would ponder their humane substance.
(Among those who did: Congress. The film shows the soft-spoken Rogers delivering testimony about public television’s importance to skeptical officials who respond to his presentation with funding.)
“You see his frustration throughout his whole life of doubting the impact of his work and the direction of our society,” Neville notes. “Children are unformed people; they don’t have a sense of affiliation or tribe or self. They’re trying to figure out what it means, how things work. In a way I feel like he was trying to explain to children how to be people; how we should behave toward one another, and how we should feel about ourselves. That kind of fundamental back-to-basics is the thing I feel like [chuckles] we all need to hear from Mr. Rogers right now.
“Can we remember the basic ideas of how we should live together, and how we should treat each other? It shouldn’t be radical. It should be common sense.”
Politically motivated protests against his egalitarianism (such as Westboro Baptist preacher Fred Phelps’ ill-timed protest outside Rogers’ funeral service) have not prevented revival of interest in Rogers’ early shows, currently streaming on Amazon, or PBS’ animated show “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” Rogers did not live to see those developments, but during his life he was honored with Emmy and Peabody Awards as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One of his sweaters is displayed in the Smithsonian. Here in Pasadena, he served as grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade in January 2003, a month before he died. In March this year, the US Postal Service issued a stamp picturing Mr. Rogers alongside his puppet alter ego, King Friday XIII.
Neville, who also directed the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” is currently working on the Leonard Cohen-focused “Hallelujah: It Goes Like This,” and anticipating Netflix’s fall release of “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” about Orson Welles’ final, unfinished film “The Other Side of the Wind.” He jokes that “documentaries were the spinach of filmmaking” when he started 25 years ago, but says we are now enjoying “a gold era for documentaries.” Judging by his descriptions of the Rogers archive (“There’s close to a million letters in the Fred Rogers Center”), there is abundant material for a substantial “Extras” section on the inevitable DVD release of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (which, at one hour and 33 minutes, feels too short).
More importantly, the film seems to represent genuine convictions. Neville distills Rogers’ overall message into the phrase “radical kindness,” but surmises Rogers himself would say it’s about an idea he discussed frequently: grace.
“To him,” Neville explains, “the fundamental idea of grace is the undeserved goodness bestowed upon you by God; that whether goodness is deserved or reciprocated, one should be good regardless. … It’s the idea that you are putting all the good out there in the world with no consideration for yourself. And if everybody was doing that, we would end up in a very healthy society of people.”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is screening at ArcLight Pasadena, 300 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; see listings for details. Info: (626) 568-8888. focusfeatures.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor, Arclightcinemas.com