In the middle of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, François Clemmons recalls when Fred Rogers asked him to stop visiting a local gay bar. This was in 1968, when Clemmons was appearing on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as Officer Clemmons. Though the ministerial Rogers had been very progressive on subjects like race, he felt that Clemmons being outed as gay would have a negative impact on the show and potentially cost them sponsors.
Clemmons begrudgingly agreed to Rogers' request. But he goes on to share that, down the line, Rogers used a line of dialogue on the show to send an overdue message to his fellow cast member: I love you for who you are. It broke Clemmons in the best way, who from then on fully embraced Rogers as a surrogate father. And it reinforced a beautiful message about Rogers: he wasn't perfect. But he was curious and loving and willing to change, and that's a pretty good start.
Directed by Morgan Neville, who won an Academy Award for 20 Feet from Stardom, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is the story of a man who turned children's television on its head. Fred Rogers would put on a sock puppet and hold a legitimate conversation with a late-night host, disarming and charming at the same time. He turned a slightly off-kilter Pittsburgh program about make-believe into a national phenomenon, all through a genuine commitment to the idea that kids can handle more than rainbows, wizards, and lasers.
Neville interviews numerous people from the Fred Rogers universe, including Clemmons, his wife Joanne, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and a charismatic stagehand who once took a photo of his butt on Rogers' camera. They all speak in awe of the man's life and legacy, from his rise to prominence in the 1960s to the older version who grew increasingly frustrated with nearly everything else on television. In particular, they highlight moments like Rogers inviting Clemmons to share a small wading pool and soak his feet, quietly showing children to look beyond race while also standing up to those who segregated public facilities.
More than anything, Rogers was both researcher and risk taker. He worked in child development at the University of Pittsburgh but wasn't afraid to teach in his own way. This documentary has inspired a lot of talk about how Mr. Rogers is the Person We Need These Days, a reasonable sentiment embraced for the wrong reasons. We could always use more loving and caring individuals, especially those who use mass media to educate and entertain. But what the world really needs is a willingness to try something different. Rogers took a then-and-now accepted idea, that children need to be spoken down to, and pushed back. He felt that kids were hearing about subjects like assassination and war on a daily basis, and it was foolish to talk over or around them. Even more so, it was insulting.
This is what Neville captures so perfectly: a radical in a sweater. Someone who could successfully pitch public television to a disbelieving senator while also producing a kids' show that addresses the concept of a benevolent ruler. With roughly eight million channels to choose from these days, there will never be someone with the impact of a Fred Rogers again. But Won't You Be My Neighbor? keeps the man's spirit alive while bringing him down to earth, turning a saint back into a good-hearted neighbor who loved children and took chances. Those are modest heights we can all aspire to reach.