Watching Feels Good Man does not feel very good. And it shouldn't. A film about the rise of online hate groups is probably not the most cheery way to spend an hour and a half. Yet with vibrant animations and an astute look at a complex subject, it is one of the most fascinating documentaries of the year.
The remarkable directorial debut from Arthur Jones is a deadly serious look at hate speech, artistic ownership, Pepe the Frog, and memes. It's completely understandable if hearing the unironic pairing of the words "deadly serious" with "memes" immediately elicits a groan. But Jones makes it work. Not only does Feels Good Man get to the core of the vile hate that can spew from the dark recesses of the internet, it also works as a compelling character study.
That character is cartoonist Matt Furie who serves as a protagonist of sorts in what becomes an increasingly nightmarish situation. In 2005, Furie created the now infamous character Pepe the Frog. When Pepe was born, he was a young, naive frog who lived in the comic strip Boy's Club. Pepe filled his chill days with just being a chill frog.
Those days seem quaint now. The benign Pepe has not just been stripped of his original context, he has become an alt-right symbol of hate and white supremacy. It could be the punchline to a deeply bizarre joke if it wasn't so genuinely alarming. The proliferation of Pepe as a hate symbol reached such a crisis point that the Anti-Defamation League classified it as such.
A world where seemingly everything has been turned upside down is where the documentary drops us in. Told through an excellent opening animation sequence, the once-innocent Pepe is seen struggling as he tries not to fall into a void of hate. It's an appropriate metaphor as the documentary shifts between detailed analysis and following Furie as he fights to regain control of his creation.
It's worth noting that all the animation is top-notch. In a post film Q&A with Jones, he said it was imperative that the animation “not suck.” There is no sucking here:
Fortunately, Feels Good Man avoids slipping into hagiography by being direct and honest about Furie's work. One particular sequence sees Furie get asked head-on if he holds any responsibility for Pepe's transformation. It isn’t asked with malice—it seems to come from a place of care for Furie—but it's an important question. Furie acknowledges that he could’ve stepped in sooner before it was completely out of his hands.
The documentary doesn’t let him off the hook. Furie made a mistake by not taking Pepe's alt-right problem seriously. It didn't just cost him his work, it also turned that work into a valuable recruitment tool for hate groups. Acknowledging these realities, that Furie is both partially at fault and hurt by the situation, is where the documentary offers nuance when it needed it.
As for the interview subjects, it's wise to include authoritative voices such as Adam Serwer, a staff writer at The Atlantic. The documentary makes less wise decisions by giving fringe voices a platform to make unchallenged and unverified statements. It makes one wonder why all the interviews with Daily Beast journalist Will Sommer were apparently cut from the project. While it's likely that the fingerprints of Sommer’s reporting are all over the documentary, the inclusion of statements untethered to reality is a disservice to factual reporting.
All of that is a brief hiccup in what is still an incredible piece of work. To think that a documentary about a cartoon frog could tell us so much about ourselves, our politics, and the future of communication is beyond unexpected. Feels Good Man feels necessary, warts and all.
You can stream Feels Good Man on iTunes, Vudu, and other streaming platforms starting Friday, September 4.