By Caleb Bobrycki
Image Credit: Focus Features
When a Presbyterian seminarian sees the mindlessness of children’s entertainment, he steps up to the task of providing educational television for a generation in need through a program famously known as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Is a documentary following the life of Fred Rogers, his family and friends as they break the rules of television to teach children how to cope with suffering in real life scenarios such as death, war, divorce, racism, and so on.
The film has a wonderful depth as it covers much breadth of the life and thought of this remarkable individual. None of the pacing is breakneck speed, though some viewers may want more details on certain topics; the runtime is still comfortable for the average viewer, while giving a mostly satisfactory insight into the man, Fred Rogers. There were certain editing choices that didn’t make much sense: there were no transitional titles, which maybe would have helped viewers understand that they had moved on from one topic to the next; some of the final product seems to try to make a point stylistically, but comes off confused rather than clear, especially the last scene; and since much of the footage is from the 70’s it is a little fuzzy and pixelated, but this was probably out of the director’s hands as it is much older footage. Lastly, from a Christian perspective, I do wish we had been given a little bit more of an objective take on his life, because it definitely seemed like a liberal agenda concerning homosexuality was slightly shoehorned into the film. There are a lot of things concerning Rogers’ thoughts on homosexuality and how he would respond to the movement today that we just don’t know, and the creators’ bias was too obvious.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this feature. I felt that, other than the above mentioned things, I observed a pretty objective take on a very interesting man. The music added a wonderful tone to the film, the rhythm was unusually great for a documentary, the message was very clear, and we saw a biography full of “warts” (Rogers’ weaknesses). I highly recommend all believers go see this tear jerker, and prepare to come away with some wonderful insights into what true humanity looks like.
An Example of True Humanity
The documentary presents a man who tried to obey the Second Great Commandment to love his neighbor as he loves himself. A quote that appears in the film and trailer is “Love is at the root of everything: all learning, all relationships… love or the lack of it.” What was especially compelling was his desire to affirm the value of every human being. When psychologists or pastors try to bring up human dignity, it is often bogged down by a theological framework that lacks God. But for Fred Rogers, his love for people was motivated by, what seems to be, a healthy understanding of the imago dei. He seemed to grasp with balance that human beings have inherent value because they are created in the image of God. This doesn’t detract from the fact that we have twisted that value because of our own sin, but unfortunately the film doesn’t give us those details about Mr. Rogers’ theology. What does come out in the film about his love for people, we should affirm wholeheartedly. Christ was the most human being to ever live, and we see that in the way he loved God and others. But what is striking, at this point, is that true humanity is the context in which the divine is made known to us. And when Little Christs grab ahold of the vision for the world that Jesus had, we find ourselves becoming more divine and more human; these realities are not at odds.
As the film progresses, we continue to observe the life of a true human: a life that was bent out in love for others. The godly observer cannot help but notice someone who, though befuddled with anxieties and insecurities, reminds us much of the life of Jesus we see in the gospels. At one point in the film, an interviewee asks the question, “What would Fred do?” I wondered at this question. Now, obviously, the godly should be more concerned with the question, “What would Jesus do?”, but we do not know the intentions behind this remark. Technically, it isn’t a bad question, especially when we consider Paul’s words, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, emphasis mine). When one observes the life of Mr. Rogers as presented in this film with charity, we see someone who was not perfect, but still embodied the kindness of his Lord. He loved all people as they were, and reserved absolutely no judgment toward anyone. We do wish for more theological insight into Rogers’ life and thought, but what we end up with is still a mostly honest take on someone who claimed Christ and loved like him.
There is so much to consider from the film that I have left out of this review, but for now the question is clear: are we being good neighbors to those around us? This film is a wonderful wake up call for those of us in the church whom the world is currently in desperate need of, and I think Mr. Rogers helps us off to a good start: “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.”