Review by: Vitali Gueron
This year marks the 50th anniversary of what is arguably the most historic year in modern American history. 1968 was a year of social unrest, a turning point in the Vietnam War and the year both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in the span of several months. It was also the year Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made its US national debut on Public Television. The show was produced by Pittsburgh public broadcaster WQED and was created by and starred Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and a lifelong Republican who possessed what’s sorely missed in present day — the compassion for others. Rogers was also fascinated by the emerging field of early childhood development, and when he became conscious of television’s potential, he reached out to the local Pittsburgh public broadcaster to create a television show that would focus on just that — early childhood development.
Directed by award winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes us on a very emotional ad heartfelt journey through the Fred Rogers’ life and a television career, which blossomed far beyond his expectations. Neville ‘s documentary traces how Rogers became a beloved national institution and how he remained resolute in his beliefs about how to reach and just plain communicate to children, despite changes in society, and with changes that happen in the world around them.
I personally did not grow up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street on PBS, mostly because I was already 8 years old when I immigrated to the United States from Bulgaria with my parents, but I was very aware of the amazing shows on public television. But it wasn’t until I saw Morgan Neville’s documentary that I realized what a true gem Fred Rogers was to us and how much I would have benefited from watching his show, as some of my friends had as kids.
In today’s world of partisan politics, vicious attacks on the news media and lack of civil discourse between individuals with differing opinions, the message of love, compassion and understanding that Fred Rogers highlighted in his shows is something we definitely could use more of in the present.
One of my favorite parts of the documentary happens towards the beginning, in early 1969 when Public Television it was still in its beginnings, Congress held hearings requested by then President Nixon. He sought to gut PBS’ small $20 million budget down in half or even less. In a remarkable turn of events, the historically accurate and stunning footage taken from 1960s news archives, Rogers testifies before then Senator John Pastore who was ready to decimate Public Broadcasting’s funding. In about six minutes of testimony, Rogers spoke of the need for social and emotional education that public television provided. Senator Pastore was visibly moved by Rogers’ eloquent appeal and surprised everyone watching in the room and across the country by declaring after Rogers’ testimony, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.” And it looks like Morgan Neville documentary just earned my praise.
Have you seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor?? Well, what did you think?