The new documentary, the feel good film of 2018 that’ll inspire a thousand think pieces on how and why we need to act more like Fred Rogers, does not need to exist. It’ll win Best Documentary at next year’s Academy Awards.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, by Academy Award winning director Morgan Neville, is unfocused portrait of America’s best person. Compiled through loving eyes, it’s too loving. We learn little. We do cry.
Here’s your spoiler alert. I’m about to tell you two things revealed in the film that has forever changed how I’ll feel about Rogers.
- Fred Rogers was a registered Republican for his entire life.
- Fred Rogers told Francois Clemmons, the actor who played Officer Clemmons, Clemmons could no longer go to the gay bar in town in case a sponsor found out.
I expected Rogers was a republican. He was a straight, white man that came from a wealthy family and studied to be a minister. I did not need to have my suspicions about Rogers’ voting record verified. If he didn’t reveal it in his 50+ years as a public figure, why should it be revealed now? My guess is Neville revealed this since Rogers’ first week of shows – about building a literal wall to protect King Friday’s castle – was a bad idea. The director attempted to portray a well rounded man that could appeal to both sides of the aisles. He failed.
The Clemmons revelation is the crux of the film. Other reviews will say its Rogers’ doubts, maybe even depression, that led to his demand of Clemmons, but there’s no there there. Of course, Fred Rogers had low points. He may have been a great person, but he was still human. The Clemmons reveal is so disappointing because it illustrates sometimes Rogers lived out of fear, not love. The trailer for the film includes this line, this ethos, of everything Fred Rogers did. He says, “Love is at the root of everything. All leaning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” He’s right. And it’s so disappointing to learn he did not act out of love when he found out Clemmons is gay.
Rogers kowtowed to sponsors even though he was on public television.
There are other issues with this film. It doesn’t mention any other important, quality children’s television, like Sesame Street. It’s as if Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was an island of educational calm. It was not and is not. Hell, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated show produced by Fred Rogers Productions that’s been airing since 2012, isn’t mentioned. There’s literally an animated Daniel Tiger in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and this is never mentioned. So much is left out that it’s distracting.
Furthermore, so much is alluded to – without any context – that it’s distracting. We’re told Rogers employed the voice of Lady Elaine Fairchilde at home when letting off steam. But we don’t learn what he let off steam about. We’re told the Rogers’ had many gay friends. We don’t hear from any of them.
Will you cry? Absolutely. I sobbed like a baby during footage I’ve seen a dozen times. If you need a pick me up film, it’s great. But I wanted a well rounded documentary, not emotional manipulation approved by the Rogers family.
I did not enjoy Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. I thought it’d be my favorite film of the year. Maybe I have identified with Fred Rogers far too long. He’s the pop culture figure that’s been present at nearly every birthday and celebration as long as I can remember. Last year I received The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember for Christmas. For the third time. The year before I was gifted a Mister Rogers’ t-shirt. I visited the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, alone, to see the Fred Rogers & Us exhibit. Maybe I was always going to dislike this film. He meant too much. Maybe it’s too much to ask for your heroes to be on the right side of history.
Nah, it’s not too much to ask. The day after seeing this film I read “The Art of the Schmooze” in The New York Review of Books. It’s about how my adult hero, Studs Terkel, was a great interviewer. So I did some very basic Googling and leaned Terkel was an Inductee to the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2001. He was given the Friend of the Community distinction for his public support of people in the LGBT community since the 1940s, pre-dating Fred Rogers’ show.
In the 2010 short documentary Studs Terkel: Listening to America, Terkel says, “I don’t give a damn what your politics are. If you are enclosed by fear, that’s Un-American.” I agree with Fred Rogers and I agree with Studs Terkel. But I think Studs may be the neighbor we need today.