Some 50-plus years in, Jeopardy’s cultural impact seems definitive. The iconic game show has fans of all sorts: Drake listeners, scholars of classic cinema, local-pub-trivia diehards. It can turn “a software engineer from Salt Lake City” into author/TV personality/quizmaster Ken Jennings or “a bartender from New York” into your parents’ favorite contestant in recent memory.
But not all of the legendary quiz show’s champions enjoy universal adoration, and new documentary Who Is Arthur Chu?—debuting on PBS’ America ReFramed this Tuesday, May 22, and available via VOD on June 12 across platforms (including iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon)—looks at this oddly controversial contestant’s first year after becoming an 11-time Jeopardy champion in 2014. If you recognize the name today, it’s likely you’re a Jeopardy diehard with some sort of feeling about Chu’s unusual “Forrest Bounce” strategy, which essentially eschewed going top-down on categories in favor of hunting out Daily Doubles in order to limit an opponent’s big-play ability. The approach seemed to anger the game’s purists and make Chu divisive to the show’s fan community, but that’s a subject destined to be the starting point for some other film.
Who Is Arthur Chu? instead stumbles into a more interesting reality. Post-Jeopardy, Chu had no interest in resting on his new reputation and embracing the trivia lifestyle—rather, he decided to capitalize on his newfound fame and following by using it to fight back against online trolling and hate campaigns in the era of GamerGate and incels. Filmmakers Yu Gu and Scott Drucker, therefore, don’t end up with a behind-the-scenes look at Trebek’s temple; Who Is Arthur Chu? goes on to ask questions that are too complex for even Final Jeopardy.
How does our identity impact the personas we grow into online? And what happens when the online persona becomes the dominant part of one’s life?
I’ll take “It’s Complicated” for $100, Alex
Chu may be the title character, but the Internet earns second billing throughout the film. Who Is Arthur Chu? does a good job showing—especially for a former compliance analyst from Broadview Heights, Ohio, suddenly thrust into the limelight—how all-consuming social media can be. Gu and Drucker make clever production decisions, like periodically flashing to Chu’s growing follower count early on as his Jeopardy success marches along or leaving the camera running to catch Chu scrolling through Twitter to see what’s happening even if he’s mid-conversation with his wife or at dinner with his father.
Chu’s relationship with the Internet and social media in many ways feels common—there are good, empowering aspects and horrible, possibly damaging aspects. Chu’s experiences prove to be more severe than most of ours, however. Throughout the documentary, viewers get to see and hear (at times directly from Chu) verbatim tweets sent his way from Jeopardy haters or plain ol’ trolls. An account called @scat_trap says he “isn’t fit to be called a human being,” while another pledges to piss on his grave. Often, the attacks get more personal, calling for harm to Chu’s family or inserting parts of his identity (most commonly ethnicity or appearance) into the insults.
For a while, Chu seems completely unfazed—he’s even ready to fight back. “There’s a special place in hell for people who jump around the board,” one egg account says, but Chu has the reply ready: “Yeah, it’s where they keep the Daily Double.” In fact, Chu soon takes these conversations beyond Twitter, leveraging the notoriety he earned through his Jeopardy run to share his ideas through larger Internet microphones. This being 2014-2015, the seeds of GamerGate are being sowed in forums and across social media at the time, so Chu soon finds himself writing about and discussing topics like toxic masculinity and white privilege, the dark side of nerd culture, or how the Internet encourages hate at places like The Daily Beast or at events like Techmanity.
“Part of what drew us to Arthur in the first place was he didn’t shy away from the trolls—he was retweeting them, talking shit back, not standing down and just taking it,” filmmaker Yu Gu told Ars earlier this spring. “Everyone has that experience at some point as a kid, and the dream is to stand up to those bullies. That’s what he was doing.”
At least one of Chu’s motives for jumping head first into this fight gets teased out simultaneously: his childhood. He grew up as the son of two Chinese immigrants, and his parents often wanted him shielded from parts of American culture (forbidding certain TV shows, not letting him participate in certain things at school, preferring their kids to study STEM fields rather than humanities, etc.). So when the Internet finally came around, it essentially became how a young Arthur Chu discovered who he is—it served as his window to various aspects of the pop culture he would grow to love. As he watched the Web become increasingly vile as an adult years later, Chu seemed to feel he couldn’t simply sit back and observe from the sidelines.
But being so invested in the online world can be a double-edged sword. For every group Chu was able to connect with and potentially inspire—the film shows him speaking with some Asian-American campus groups to discuss representation in media or the dismantling of the model minority myth, for instance—the constant call of resisting the Web’s dark forces consumes his life. We see Chu investing time in things like appearing on niche GamerGate-sympathetic YouTube channels to argue with folks, possibly just trying to incite such outrage, as his relationships with family and loved ones evolve or as he tries to navigate real-world struggles. There are stretches of the film where Chu can’t get through an interaction with others without the siren song of a phone vibration.
“We filmed him for a year, and we didn’t know how much of this online fight/life would take over his life in a way,” Gu says. “One of the first tweets we put in the film was, ‘Now I feel like a real person because I have more followers than people I follow.’ That really hit me when I read that. You see his childhood as someone who was an outsider for his entire life and felt like an outcast because of that. So for him to find this community online and feel something, that’s a real meaningful moment, and you can see how much he invested in this online community. But from there, we observe how he may have gone in too deep, and it took over his life; it became this whole other animal he couldn’t control.”
Without spoiling anything specific, Who Is Arthur Chu dives into many relevant themes for 2018 despite being set a few years in the past. The documentary has been winning at festivals and showing on college campuses for that very reason, and it’s totally possible for a group to use it as a jumping off point to discuss things like gender, Asian-American identity, the first-generation immigrant-family experience, or tech itself in the same way this review looks at the film through the prism of “where does online life end and offline life begin?” (When we talked with Gu, Chu himself had yet to see the film, partially because of the difficult topics it presents for him.)
Gu and Drucker may have initially wanted a more Jeopardy-centric story (Trebek makes a cameo; Ken Jennings was interviewed, but his insight has been left for DVD extras), but they discovered something more complex. Who Is Arthur Chu? uses reality to grapple with many of our favorite cinematic questions—can you have an all-encompassing, healthy relationship with tech (Her)? Can good intentions prove problematic if the implementation goes bad (Black Panther and Killmonger)? And unlike the show that inspired this doc, life doesn’t necessarily declare a clear winner.
Listing image by Jeopardy
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