As a fan of The Coup, when I heard that Boots Riley was going to get into making movies and (now) TV shows, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, Boots had an album cover for one of The Coup’s albums had them blowing up the World Trade Center (the album was released in September 2001 to many people’s frowns and later had to change the album cover), so he very much wears his anti-capitalist sentiments on his sleeve. Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry to Bother You was captivating as it explored how black people have to do code-switching to thrive in a corporate environment. It was an absurdist and smart dark comedy…..until the “Equisapien” plot showed up. I even made an audible “What the f*ck” in the theater while watching it. Weird horse people aside, Sorry to Bother You was a solid directorial debut from someone I didn’t even know had a strong director’s voice. What was next in store for Riley and the stories he wanted to tell? Ironically, Riley teamed up with Amazon (one of the largest corporations in the world) to tell an even more anti-capitalist message in his new show I’m a Virgo.
If you saw Sorry to Bother You, you know Boots Riley can get weird…. Like REALLY weird! If that’s your thing, fear not for I’m a Virgo is even weirder! The show centers on a 13-foot-tall young black man in Oakland, California (it’s Boots, so it has to be Oakland) named Cootie (Jharrel Jerome). Being a giant, Cootie has lived a sheltered life under the care of his Aunt Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo) and Uncle Martisse (Mike Epps). It’s never clear what happened to his mother, but we’ll just assume she dies giving birth to a 4-foot-tall baby, so Cootie has lived his whole life sheltered away from the outside world. His only social interaction is with his uncle and aunt, him watching tv, and his love of comic books, notably a comic book about a hero in their world named “The Hero” (Walton Goggins who somehow channels both Stan Lee and Tony Stark at the same time). One day, he just becomes fed up with being reclusive and starts to try and explore the outside world when his aunt and uncle aren’t looking.
At first in I’m a Virgo, he just tries to not be seen, even disguising himself with branches pretending to be a 13-foot-tall tree. But folks in the hood seem to notice a 13-foot-tall tree walking around at night, which causes him to become a viral sensation and a legend around the hood called “the twamp monster.” Soon enough, the cat is out of the bag and he meets a group of interesting friends: Felix (Brett Gray), Jones (Kara Young), and Scat (Allius Barnes) who take him for a night out on the town. Having never been outside, he really enjoys being around people and even more notably, being outside. He marvels at how large the skyscrapers are and finally realizes he’s not the biggest thing in Oakland. He’s also a big fan of a burger joint he’s only seen commercials for and befriends Flora (Olivia Washington) as he has a crush on her, and she has one on him.
Now that everyone knows about him in I’m a Virgo, Cootie is no longer just an urban legend or a viral sensation, everyone wants a piece of him. Sports agents want him in the NBA or NFL (Boots Riley’s critique of professional sports wanting to use black bodies for our entertainment), and modeling agencies was a 13-foot-tall model to make money off of (a critique of the fashion industry as well). He’s also almost worshipped by a strange cult that treats him like some sort of deity (a critique of organized religion). His sheer size has also captured the attention of The Hero, who just sees him as a giant black man and therefore a possible threat.
While Boots Riley does a great job at satirizing various industries in the early episodes of I’m a Virgo, about halfway through the series an event happens that allows him to really get on his soapbox and speak about the evils of capitalism. Originally there was a larger story looming in the background related to unfettered capitalism, but when it starts affecting the lives of the characters, then the show gets serious. Cootie’s friend Jones is an anti-capitalist activist with her own set of special gifts, who can telepathically put images in people’s minds as she’s preaching to them about whatever she wants. Those are the scenes where you see Amazon put your Prime membership to the test in their CGI department and deliver some great visuals.
In addition to Jones having superpowers, I’m a Virgo also explored other people with superpowers, especially Cootie’s love interest Flora, who just happens to be a speedster and is probably the first time we get to see a realistic approach to how Quicksilver or the Flash view us “slow” people. There’s a part of one episode that explores her past where as a child she’s perceived as autistic because she can’t “slow down” her speech for everyone else to understand and is nonverbal. It almost makes you want to rewatch The Flash and apply that same logic to Barry Allen. Boots Riley’s approach to Walton Goggins’ The Hero is also interesting. He’s a comic book publisher, who is also a master inventor who turns himself into a superhero, and publishes his own propaganda to enrich himself and also patrol the hood to be an even worse version of ED-209. It’s weird though because you don’t like The Hero, but you also feel sorry for him at the same time.
I’m sure there will be countless reviews and think pieces this weekend that discuss I’m a Virgo’s sex scene between Cootie and Flora. How does a speedster have sex with a 13-foot-tall person? Well, you’ll get your answer to that! There’s a moment where she finally gets a look at his “member” (that goodness we don’t get to see it as probably would have taken up your whole TV screen!) and realizes she got way more than she bargained for. He’s hilarious and touching at the same time.
I’m a Virgo, like Riley’s previous film, does not try and hide its message at all. It’s really exploring the notion of being black and feared in America. Cootie is only 19 years old on the show and naive as hell, but society doesn’t give him a chance to learn and grow, he’s already seen as an adult, or more likely a “thug” just for his blackness, his incredibly large blackness. That and the incredibly anti-capitalist message is clear as day. Most films/shows try and slyly put their message hidden within layers, not I’m a Virgo! If you don’t get the message immediately, you aren’t paying attention! Even the show’s title “I’m a Virgo” is something Cootie says, not to reiterate his astrological sign, but more to say he’s ready for the adventure and wants to plunge headfirst into it.
In I’m a Virgo, The performances are great across the board. We already know how good an actor Jharrel Jerome is from his Emmy-winning performance from When They See Us, but he completely shines as Cootie. At first, he’s green to the outside world, but as he sees how black people are treated, how he’s perceived, and that his favorite superhero is just a tool of capitalism and white supremacy, he matures and grows up quickly. All his friends are also great, especially Kara Young as Jones who gives some of the best monologues about capitalism throughout the series. Walton Goggins is Walton Goggins and he’s great in almost everything he does. One big surprise though is Mike Epps, who I’ll admit often is annoying with his comedy and acting styles. While he’s funny in parts of I’m a Virgo, he also has some great moments giving Cootie insight into the outside world and how he’ll be treated. The breakout star of the show, however, is Olivia Washington as Flora. Denzel (yes that Denzel Washington) is slowly starting to build a dynasty as it looks like all his kids are bound for the big screen. She plays shy very well, but is also incredibly confident in herself especially when she and Cootie sleep together.
That said, I do have to talk about the elephant in the room. Boots Riley is aggressively anti-capitalist. Between his rap albums, Sorry to Bother You, and now I’m a Virgo, Riley has hammered you in the head about the evils of capitalism and it needs to be destroyed and replaced with something fairer. To paraphrase Stanley Goodspeed, “Why in the name of Zeus’ butthole did he choose Amazon to tell such an anti-capitalist story?!?” I mean, if you are going to go through a major studio, you go with Amazon?!? The same Amazon that has been actively resisting their workers to unionize (which was a plot point of Sorry to Bother You). The same Amazon that put mom & pop bookstores out of business and that we now order everything online from?!? It’s just a strange choice that he went with Amazon, and an even stranger choice that Amazon went with him!
OK rant done. I’m a Virgo is a weird, absurdist satire of a series that juggles many themes and although is preachy as hell, doesn’t really “feel” preachy as you are just enjoying the storyline. However, you can expect a bunch of MAGA folks who happen to stumble across it this weekend to say it’s “woke.” And you know what… it is!! And that’s a good thing! Also, kudos to Boots Riley for making a weird black as hell science-fiction show, which is normally not a space where these topics are discussed, and definitely not discussed by black people. I’m a Virgo is absolutely strange, but my kind of strange!
I’m a Virgo is currently available on Prime Video.