Oscars Not Neighborly to Mr. Rogers Doc ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’

Fred Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”/Focus Features

The Academy Award nominations came out today, and as always, there are complaints about snubs, but the omission of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? from the Best Documentary list is a sad moment for gentle, uplifting films.

This isn’t to say that the films that got nods are slackers. Here they are (with a link to something interesting about them):

Free Solo

Follows the free-climbing (that is, climbing precipitous heights without a rope) adventures of Alex Honnold, with a insight into his high-risk psychology.

Click here for an in-depth review from Climbing.com.

Minding the Gap

Filmmaker Bing Liu chronicles the bond among himself and his skateboarding buddies from the Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinois — along with their family and personal issues.

Click here for a review from Justin Chang, the Los Angeles Times‘ critic (who’s also Christian).

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Directed by RaMell Ross, who moved to Hale County, Alabama, in 2009 to coach basketball and teach photography, and then created a lyrical portrait of African-American life in the South.

Click here for NPR‘s review, and here for one from National Review.

Of Fathers and Sons

Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki looks at a jihadi father raising sons in northern Syria.

Click here for a review from when it showed at Sundance.


Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West profile Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Click here for a review at AVClub.com that doesn’t exactly love it.

Short of asking individual Academy members, we may never know why Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — which received glowing reviews, even from me — didn’t make the cut.

But I do have some speculations:

  • Fred Rogers was a Christian. That isn’t overemphasized in the film, but it comes through clearly. On top of that, he was a Christian who acted like one. He wasn’t perfect, but he tried to live out his faith. That may be a plus with God or with us, but it doesn’t likely impress the average Academy voter. If he’d been a bad, hypocritical Christian, then maybe …
  • The documentary didn’t try to deconstruct Rogers, tear him down or reveal his dirty secrets. He didn’t really seem to have any of note. As I said, the film is “a love letter to a gentle, thoughtful, kind man who was pretty much as he appeared to be, and who cared deeply about small children.”
  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tackles issues like race and sexuality — in the person of Rogers’ adoring gay co-star Francois Clemmons — with great sensitivity and a minimum of rancor. So, it’s not courting controversy, and that’s not in its favor.
  • Rogers didn’t have a major fall from grace — prison, an illness, drug addiction and so on — that forced him to rise from the ashes. That always makes for more compelling film, especially with Oscar voters.
  • It’s a beautiful-looking film, but it doesn’t feature soaring vistas (like Free Solo) or take us to strange worlds (like Of Fathers and Sons) or profile a political and judicial icon with a job that affects all Americans (like RBG). It may be that Fred Rogers’ world just isn’t exciting enough to merit an Oscar nom.

No doubt there are many other worthy films that didn’t get nominations either. But wouldn’t it be great if a lovely film about a good and gentle man made the cut? After all, it’s not like we’re hearing about them every day.

The documentary will air Feb. 9 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series. It also debuts that night on HBO.

Image: Focus Features

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

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  • Scott Copeland

    There is a ridiculous tradition of the most financially successful and/or the best reviewed documentary being snubbed by the documentary branch. A partial list: The Last Waltz, Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line, and Shoah. All great films in my opinion. I think the snub of Won’t You Be My Neighbor is simply this branch hating financial success.