A documentary about a grinning cartoon frog might be the most important movie about politics to come out in 2020.
“Feels Good Man” tells the story of Pepe the Frog, which first appeared in a comic strip called “Boy’s Club” in 2005. It grew to become a meme by 2008, mostly on the message boards of a site called 4Chan.
Creator Matt Furie was first just amused about how widespread his comic was on the Internet and he saw no harm in people making their own drawings or using the character to express emotions. Even Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj retweeted images using Pepe in 2014.
But in 2015, things changed. Donald Trump announced he was running for president and at the same time an undercurrent of angry Internet users began to use memes to spread their message. 4Chan became inundated with extremist that became known as the alt-right, a collection of Internet users that often said sexist, racist or xenophobic things and shunned normal society.
For some reason, Pepe became their symbol.
Furie wasn’t happy. His happy little comic turned into something used for hatred and it was eventually deemed a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League
Documentary director Arthur Jones (in his feature debut) dissects this cultural phenomenon and explains how a cartoon becomes a meme and how a meme’s meaning can get changed by the others. Truly nobody owns anything on the Internet. And things take on a life of their own.
Expertly intercut with talking head interviews, TV news clips and animation of Pepe to portray the mood, Jones really takes you on a journey. It’s fast paced and chock-full of information, but it really gets at the heart of today’s political landscape and it does it in a way that’s mostly objective. The alt-right users get their (brief) say but they don’t overtake Furie’s central message of love and hope.
Everything in this documentary could easily be discovered by perusing Wikipedia and reading a few in depth articles. Trump retweeting Pepe. Hillary Clinton denouncing Pepe. Cryptocurrency. Trading “rare Pepes” and selling them for thousands. The lawsuit against Alex Jones. The political movement in Hong Kong. The documentary covers it all and even if you knew all of this stories it’s done with such style and emotion that it’s worth seeing it all distilled into 90 minutes.
I know colleges teach courses on Internet memes and symbology and this movie should be required viewing for all of those students (and probably marketing or political science majors too). It perfectly explains how a meme comes to life and what impact it can have on the world. At times the movie can be scary, but it ends of a beautifully hopeful note.
The one thing I really took from this documentary is that you can always flip the script. Maybe Pepe was once a symbol of white supremacy, but you can reclaim it and make it into a symbol of love too. If things that are meant for good can be turned into hatred, why can’t we work in the opposite direction? Maybe that’s possible too.