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‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ documentary director discusses the “radical kindness” of Mr. Rogers

Dayna sits down with director Morgan Neville to talk about Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary that looks at the life and “radical kindness” of Fred Rogers.

Dayna Keyes: I left Won’t You Be My Neighbor wanting to build a time machine. That was compounded by the fact that I went to the screening of Ready Player One. I want to go back: more Mr. Rogers, less becoming a cyborg. I wasn’t old enough…I didn’t know anything about him until this movie.

Morgan Neville: When (Fred Rogers) is talking about ‘won’t you be my neighbor?” he’s really talking about what kind of neighborhood, community, and society we’re going to have. Being a good neighbor is being a good citizen and community member. What he was trying to do was model basic humanist values for four-year-olds. At a time when we feel like we may have lost touch with some of those values…and kindness…it feels really good to go back and talk about those things.

DK: I have a couple friends who are pregnant, and all they talk about is how they are going to get some Mr. Rogers, maybe some Fraggle Rock. That’s what their kids are going to watch so that they grow up to be good people.

MN: I think (the show) is on Amazon Prime now, at least 100 of the old episodes are. Fred (Rogers) said the outside world of kids has changed a lot, but the inside world of a kid never changes. Every new kid is a new reboot of a human. They don’t come with the baggage that we pick up with culture, they learn that baggage. Kids will absolutely zero in on the message of that show. I’ve seen it happen. It’s really profound what it does to kids. It was so thoughtful. It’s not just there to sell sugar and toys. It’s there to deliver a really deep message.

DK: It’s like he had the mind of a child or he could think in their terms.

MN: The thing he did that I think is really radical is that he was like, “don’t talk down to kids.” Talk to them at their level, explain difficult things in age-appropriate terms, and that’s the thing I don’t see happening in kid’s media. (Fred) would talk about insanely profound things: war, AIDS, nuclear holocaust, bullying…because kids were aware of these things happening. Kids were like, thank you for explaining that to me in a way that most adults will never touch. They just say “don’t worry about that.” That’s something I think nobody is doing today.

DK: The other thing I found interesting was that he would take breaks and come back when something bad was happening in the world, like war, and discuss it with the kids. That included 9/11.

MN: Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on a Wednesday in 1968. He said “the funeral is going to be Saturday and it’s going to be televised nationally. Children are going to be home and they’re going to wonder about it. I need to do a show to air Friday night to explain to parents how to talk to (their) kids.” This was his mission. So they scrambled and threw together this half-hour show where he demonstrated how the adults should talk to the kids about assassination and loss. Nobody has done anything like that before or since. That half-hour episode is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.

Dayna and Morgan discuss the human side of the iconic Fred Rogers, the hilarious way he would handle anger, and his wife’s one request for Won’t You Be My Neighbor in the podcast below.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor will open in select theaters June 7.

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