Cartoon frog, online calamity in ‘Independent Lens’ season-opener

Award-winning documentary starts new season of PBS' 'Independent Lens'

Matt Furie

What can you learn from a cartoon frog?

More than you might expect … including how a character developed for amusement could be hijacked and recast as a symbol of hate. Such is the subject of “Feels Good Man,” a Sundance Film Festival-honored documentary that opens the 22nd season of PBS’ anthology series “Independent Lens” Monday, Oct. 19 (check local listings).

The project by writer-director-animator Arthur Jones and writer-producer-cinematographer Giorgio Angelini traces the surprising history of Matt Furie’s “Boy’s Club” comic figure Pepe the Frog, intended to represent male college graduates’ experiences in the “real world.” The image was copied by online communities that used it to convey extreme views, with Furie left generally helpless to reclaim Pepe from his unintended role on the internet.

“This is something that has never happened before,” Jones maintains. “The Anti-Defamation League never has declared a meme a hate symbol before. It has never declared a copyrighted character a hate symbol before. So, it was a process for Matt to figure out how to handle this. He tried to handle that via his artistic community first, then he tried to find a set of lawyers to enforce the copyright in a way that he felt was right for him.”

Furie notes the process confirmed for him that “it is hard to control anything on the internet,” with Angelini adding, “I think it is important to understand there’s no playbook for this. There’s not really anybody that’s had to go through what Matt’s gone through. It is admirable what he did to defend his work, and it is also a lesson in how we should approach media in the internet era. I think the takeaway is really that the truth of Pepe is that he is a symbol of love.”

A fan of “Boy’s Club” and Furie’s other work before they met, Jones says he wants “Feels Good Man” to serve as “a case study of how social media allows people who are very far apart from each other to actually coalesce and kind of build a community that’s based on emotions and grievance.”

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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