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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Won't You Be My Neighbor

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Jacqueline  Monahan

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Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for
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Won’t You Be My Neighbor | Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, François Clemmons, Yo-Yo Ma, Joe Negri, David Newell, Kailyn Davis, Betty Aberlin, Elaine Rogers | Review

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is, fortunately, a documentary because no one can do Mr. Rogers like Mr. Rogers himself.  It is an engaging and enlightening look into the life of the gentle, compassionate PBS television presence of Fred Rogers, the ordained Presbyterian minister who donned a zippered sweater and sneakers and welcomed generations of children into his neighborhood for 31 seasons (1968-2001).
Behind the comforting, well modulated voice was a man of decency and conviction.  The thoughtful and patient Fred Rogers revolutionized children’s programming by listening, comforting, reassuring and respecting the country’s smallest citizens.  Up to that point many television programs for children were slapstick-based – clowns, practical jokes, toy guns, and hyperactive characters that entertained but did not explain, or educate, or listen.

Rogers changed his career path from ministry to television producer in order to bring his vision to life in the form of the now iconic Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in black and white in 1968.  With characters both human and puppet, Rogers reached millions of children by talking to them, not at them, in a way that reassured them, calmed their fears, and addressed their worries.

Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, 20-feet from Stardom) intersperses archival footage with interviews and recollections from family, friends, and crew members.   Not one of them has a bad word to say about the man; in fact, the memories bring both smiles and tears as stories are recounted of what life with Rogers was like and the significance of the number 143.

Footage of Rogers at a congressional hearing to decide the fate of funding for public television illustrates his impressive, understated, and sincere mission to keep the programming alive.
Cognizant that children traditionally had no voice, Rogers gave them his with an accompanying sympathetic ear to listen to their fears, worries, and questions.  He spoke slowly, reacted with kindness, advocated inclusion, and addressed the casual violence that saturated children’s television.  He made it okay for children to have emotions; they could be seen and heard.

The documentary has emotional moments throughout its 94-minute run-time, but also touches on the criticism Rogers encountered because of his ongoing message to children that they were special; he attracted undeserved blame for fashioning a generation of entitled young adults.  
Actor François Clemmons relates the time that Rogers cautioned him about frequenting a gay bar, warning that he would no longer be able to be on the show.  It wasn’t that Rogers was anti-gay – he just understood that the climate of the time as well as the broadcast industry would make it inevitable.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is an uplifting look at a man whose decency and transparency seemed too good to be true.  What surprises us is that it was true, all of it:  the kindness, the integrity, the sincerity, and the passion.  Rogers brought an oasis of civility to an increasingly turbulent television landscape, injecting a dose of honey into a bitter and cynical world.

The sweetness lingers.

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