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‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ Film Review

143.

This very special number and its message perfectly summarize the theme and mood of this lovely documentary. 143 is not just the weight of the beloved Fred Rogers (yes, every morning after his leisure swim, Mr. Rogers would weigh himself, and it would read 143 pounds), but it also serves as his and (the shows mantra) as 143 = I love you.

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The documentary itself was a wonderful experience and was one of the rare films which left me thinking about it’s content and message well after the projection finished (and in the middle of game 3 of the NBA finals). Growing up, I would watch Mr. Rogers  on my family TV after coming home from school, and sometimes, I would end up learning more from the show than the actual lesson plan for that day. As the documentary made clear, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is not one of those action-packed, fast paced children’s TV shows. It was rather a show that helped parents in the pivotal role of raising their children and helping explain base emotions and real world events in a way that children could understand and grasp.

The documentary was presented in a very interesting way. The film was composed of archived footage and “rare” pieces of footage from behind the scenes. The remainder of the dialogue was made up of interviews from the cast and family of Mr. Rogers. There were also multiple sections of the film that were animated which served as powerful sequences that highlighted central themes and placed further emphasis on the message at hand.

Sonically, the music was stirring and poignant. It left the audience filled with nostalgia and melancholy (oh look! I just described every Mumford and Sons album… except Wilder Mind…). I think melancholy is a perfect word to describe the effect that this film had and conveyed.

The message (I hate that word) was hopeful, something along the lines that there are people in this world who are filled with love and truly care… but the more you think about it, the more you begin to doubt. Was Mr. Rogers really the same in his real life as his persona? The film will lead you to believe that yes, he was. But no matter how pure or honest someone is, there is always a little darkness in them (thank you Riverdale for ruining that analogy forever).

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The “narrative” of the documentary can be separated into three distinct ssections.

The first section follows Mr. Rogers and his life before the show, offering information that is scarcely known by the general public. This section was very interesting as it took on a psychological undertone, introducing the topic of the narrative and the manner of delivery, along with examining the effects of media and television on children during the beginning of mass media.

Section two, which makes up the majority of the 92 minute run time can be further separated into two sections: the early days vs. the later days. In the early days, Mr. Rogers is presented as this individual who loves children and wants to be a part of something good with a heart of gold. Here we can see the beginnings of the show and how it grew and skyrocketed after he took the stand at the PBS hearing. Friends, cast members, and family members were interviewed and asked about their time with Fred Rogers. Many beautiful moments followed.

Section 2.a suddenly transitions to a much darker and intense/pessimistic tone that juxtaposes the happy and light feeling of the early parts of the documentary. Here, topics such as 9/11 were taken on by Mr. Rogers and the audience are shown a different side of the beloved individual. In a particularly powerful interview with his wife, she reads a note that she found written by Fred expressing doubt and anxiety over his ability to connect and further push his agenda of love and treating everyone in the world equally.

With the ending of the documentary speedily approaching, the third and final act is introduced (and rushed through at a blistering pace). This last section deals with the aftermath and legacy of Mr. Rogers. Some controversies were addressed and the protests at his funeral were shown and discussed… but very little after that.

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Throughout the documentary, there were 2 powerful moments that I still shiver (in a good way) when I think about now.

The first was one of the interviews with François Clemmons (who played Officer Celmmons). This particular story revolved around Clemmons’ homosexuality and Fred’s acceptance of it. The story goes as follows:

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Clemmons was beside Fred filming when Fred, as always, told Clemmons’ character that he loved him. But this time, Clemmons stopped Fred and asked if he said “I love you” to Officer Clemmons or to François. Fred replied that for the last two years, every time he said those three words, he meant them whole heartedly to François. At that moment Clemmons burst into tears in the story and on the screen. From that day, Clemmons saw Fred as the father he never had. Someone who loved him and respected him regardless of his race, regardless of his sexuality. During this part, I looked around the theater and saw people dabbing their eyes and a chorus of sniffles erupting (sorta like Con Hall during cold season).

The second powerful moment that stuck with me was the section that revolved around Jeff Erlanger.

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Without a doubt, the most touching and heart pulling moment of the whole film. It would be a disservice to spoil any moment of this incredible story.

Overall, I came in with low expectations for the documentary and within moments, I was blown away. Aside from some cringy political and religious undertones and a slight pacing issue, this documentary was fantastic and inspirational. A beautiful story that shows that there are people in this world that love and respect everyone. Just what we need after such turbulent and divisive times.

Rating – 8.5/10

Would recommend to friends and random people on the internet.

 

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