Released: 5th October
Seen: 22nd October
Like all strange stories, this one begins with a frog. A chunky green frog with a big round mouth and wide eyes who pees with his pants around his ankles. This frog’s name is Pepe, the star of a comic book series called Boy’s Club written by Matt Furie. The comic series was a big hit on Myspace (remember that?) and was just a simple sweet little cartoon by a single creator who just wanted to make people laugh… and then the alt-right got their hands on Pepe and the world turned upside down.
Feels Good Man follows the story of Pepe the Frog from his innocent origins as a cartoon frog who peed with his pants around his ankles because it felt good to a symbol used by Nazis online to identify themselves to each other and express their hatred in a way that was so weird that no one could sound sane when they talked about it. The documentary touches on meme culture, how the alt-right has grown in recent years and how an artist’s work can be stolen from them by a group of scumbags who want nothing more than to make life worse for everyone.
The story of what happened to Pepe is one of the most heartbreaking stories of what can happen to an artist’s work. Feels Good Man lets us get to know Matt Furie, a man who just wants to make people laugh with his comics and seems to have a good home life with his family. He has to watch as this character he’s created becomes such a prominent hate symbol that it ends up on the Anti Defamation League’s hate symbol database (alongside the OK hand gesture because Nazis ruin everything). Feels Good Man really goes to great lengths to try and explain how this happened, starting from Pepe through his being discovered by 4Chan, his eventual use by them as a symbol of depression before exploding into just being a full on Nazi symbol, complete with swastikas and “Jokes” about doing harm to Jewish people.
Watching how quickly this character was transformed into a symbol of hate (and eventually a symbol for Trump, which is basically the same thing) is horrifying. It’s horrifying how easily they recontextualised this character to the point where Pepe was more known for his links to white supremacy than he was for being part of the Boy’s Club comics. Here’s how closely tied Pepe was to white supremacy, do you remember that amazing video of white supremacist Richard Spencer being punched in the face? Seconds before that, Spencer is talking about how Pepe is a symbol for the alt-right, that’s how intense the link is.
Throughout Feels Good Man, the politics that have become associated with Pepe are never shied away from. It’s called out directly what side was using Pepe and for what purpose, how easily this symbol was able to be altered and adjusted for their needs. This builds to a beautiful crescendo when Matt finally fights back and starts suing these bastards who have been abusing Pepe, notably the ultimate asshole Alex Jones whose lawsuit takes up most of the final act of the film.
What strikes me about this story is just how quickly a 4chan board was able to take this cartoon character and turn him into their symbol, and how they basically used him to meme a president into existence (at least, the people on that board believe that they’re responsible for Trump and… I mean, they certainly helped). Yes, this film shows how Pepe was used as part of the support of a certain frog necked president and it’s kind of disturbing how effective it was.
There is some glimmer of hope though, throughout Feels Good Man we keep coming back to Matt and seeing him slowly learn to fight for his creation and seeing him take on the alt-right and take Pepe back is powerful. The scenes with Matt suing Alex Jones are some of the highlights (admittedly this is because seeing Alex Jones squirm when he’s being sued should count as a Viagra substitute) and knowing that there are still ongoing fights to take this symbol away from the Nazi’s is empowering and beautiful to witness.
Sure there are some moments of Feels Good Man that feel pointless, namely the entire bit about Cryptocurrency which feels like it’s there purely to show how weird this shit got. Sure, it’s obscenely weird that a grown adult spent $39,000 real world dollars to buy a meme that shows a combination of Homer Simpson and Pepe the Frog… has nothing really to do with this story of how the image of Pepe became a hate symbol, that part really could’ve been edited out but everything else is some of the most powerful political cinema of this year.
Feels Good Man is important, it shows how effectively the alt-right can change the context of anything to suit their purposes and how hard it is to fight them… but that it’s possible, that they can be beaten at their own game. Possibly the best documentary of the year, certainly the one that feels most appropriate… after all, this year has been so weird, feels only natural that the explanation to the weirdness is “A bunch of Nazi’s memed a pissing frog into a hate symbol and used that symbol to help them elect a president”