Older white man with dark and gray hair wearing a suit with his head resting on his hand

In June, when the Trump administration was using kids as bargaining chips in its push for stricter immigration laws, we could have used a child advocate like Fred Rogers. In fact, we could still use someone like the wise and loving “Mr. Rogers” to counteract a toxic atmosphere in which ethnic fears are mined for political power.

After watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, you realize just how much we lost when Rogers died in 2003. Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) has put together a loving homage to the minister-turned-TV star and the unique show he created, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Rejecting the pie-in-the-face slapstick of children’s shows hosted by Soupy Sales and others, Rogers concentrated on giving his young viewers a friend who liked them just the way they were. With the help of various puppets (all voiced by him) and human co-stars, he also offered little vignettes designed to help them deal with everyday challenges such as anger, loss and disappointment.

To Rogers, children were capable of dealing with any issue as long as it was presented in an age-appropriate manner. Over the years, he addressed topics ranging from death and divorce to racial prejudice. He even took on assassination following Sen. Robert Kennedy’s murder in 1968.

Some may be disappointed that Neville doesn’t spend more time revisiting Rogers’s own childhood. Instead, we’re given biographical tidbits only when they’re needed to help us understand the TV icon he became.

The film doesn’t ignore Rogers’s occasional stumbles, such as when he counseled a gay cast member to hide his sexuality to avoid angering the show’s supporters. (He atoned for his mistake years later.) Nor does it hide eccentricities such as the pride Rogers took in maintaining a weight of exactly 143—a magical figure to him because it symbolized the number of letters in the words “I love you.”

All of this only adds depth to the film’s moving portrait of the kind of saintly man today’s society sorely needs. You’ll probably want to bring a handkerchief.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13) opened June 28 at the Drexel Theatre, Lennox 24 and Gateway Film Center.

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