A revolutionary? That is exactly how film director Morgan Neville describes unassuming, Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers. Morgan would know after spending countless hours sifting through decades of film of the most famous children's program host ever.
"You're just watching King Friday, Daniel Tiger. And you don't realize he's actually talking about war or race or sexism or all these things he was putting in the show," Neville says.
Neville's documentary film "Won't You Be My Neighbor" chronicles the career of Rogers and his eponymous show that confronted the Vietnam War in its first week.
The movie won Best Documentary at SIFF this year. The movie is showing at select theaters in Seattle starting June 15.
Though "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" targeted toddlers and early elementary school kids, no subject was off-limits.
"This amazing scene with Francois Clemmons, Officer Clemmons, the African American police officer in the neighborhood, and Fred, putting their feet together in the kitty pool. And sharing that at a time when black people and white people weren't supposed to be in swimming pools together in many parts of the country. So he was trying to, in his own quiet way, model what he thought we should be."
Neville says Rogers tackled tough topics and, as a result, acknowledged that kids know more of what's going on than they're often given credit for.
"Nobody'd done it before and really nobody's done it since. But what he was doing with 'The Land of Make Believe' was creating this parable machine to help explain scary things to kids."
The idea for the film arose from a conversation Neville had with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who once appeared on Rogers' show.
"And he started talking about Fred Rogers in a way that really surprised me. He said he and Fred often talked about fame, which he called the other F word...and that fame actually could be used for a positive force. And when he finished telling me this, my head kinda exploded and I thought there might be more to Mr. Rogers than I ever thought."
The movie goes way beyond the iconic sweater to the man himself.
"He kind of hated television. So he was the least likely TV star of all time. He just wanted the TV because he realized it was incredibly important tool to help children."
As he grew up watching the show, Neville says Mr. Rogers feels like a lifelong friend, though they never met. And his message of the world as a neighborhood means more now than ever.
"Mr. Rogers Neighborhood went on 50 years ago this year. And in a way, I feel like this is the most contemporary film I've ever made."
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