The seven-episode Amazon series I’m a Virgo is Boots Riley’s much-anticipated follow-up to his fantastic sleeper hit film Sorry to Bother You (2018). It’s about a thirteen-foot-tall black teenager named Cootie (Jharrel Jerome of Moonlight) who’s raised in hiding by his Aunt Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo) and Uncle Martisse (Mike Epps). Then Cootie literally outgrows his childhood home and ventures out into his Oakland neighborhood, where he discovers just how crazy the world really is.
As a child, Cootie’s aunt and uncle convinced him that he had to stay inside because people are terrified of giants, and they have a special scrapbook they use to illustrate it full of old newspaper clippings about people through history suffering from “gigantism” the glandular overproduction of growth hormone, who were killed in various cruel ways, their organs harvested for public display — clearly a surreal version of “the talk” black parents have with their children about how guarded in their behavior they have to be in public.
Or perhaps it’s not so surreal. In Sammy Davis Jr’s 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can, he described how for a long time in his childhood, his show business family had him convinced that the hostility they encountered while traveling through many majority-white towns was due to the fact that “they just hate show people here.” It was a traumatic interlude in his life when he first began to recognize the real reason for their hatred.
When Cootie is old enough to rebel against being cooped up inside the family compound, his aunt finally connects the “giant” stories to race, saying, “People have always been afraid, and you are a thirteen-foot-tall black man…”
There are night scenes that resemble an astonishing dream image, featuring the freshly liberated Cootie sitting on the back of his new friends’ convertible riding through the splendid, neon-lit, hard-partying streets of Oakland like some otherworldly titan.
“Some people are gonna try to figure out how to use you,” Uncle Martisse warns him after Cootie’s become a kind of local hero called the Twamp Monster. “Then try to figure out how to get rid of you.”
You don’t have to be a prophet to see that coming, and Cootie is soon signed up by a creepy white agent, a Guy Smiley in a business suit, who tries to get him into sports. All sports executives promptly ban Cootie from participating. Then it’s on to fashion, as the naïve Cootie is used as a giant advertisement, dressed in grotesque supersized clothes, placed in demeaning poses he doesn’t understand, and instructed to contort his face into bizarre expressions. (One looks like the hilarious pursed-lip “Blue Steel” expression from Zoolander.)
Cootie doesn’t see the danger in all this. Largely self-taught by whatever media he’s been absorbing through the years, he lives by various sayings and notions he’s picked up from computer games, commercial ads, comic books, etc. In his childlike way, he picks up and recites as a motto the self-help line, “From that day forward I knew nothing would stop me from achieving greatness,” along with an astrological truism, “I’m a Virgo, and Virgos love adventure.”
That immersion in pop culture entails absorbing a lot of dangerous ideology is continually underscored in the show. Cootie the comic book fan naturally sees himself in the role of potential hero, the savior of a troubled society, considering that he can bench-press the family car. “I started to think maybe my size is a sign, a signal to do something important,” he says solemnly.
His friend Jones (Kara Young), a socialist political organizer working toward a general strike, cautions him that the goal is a mass movement, when the people rise up to take power, rather than having it given to them by any heroic figure, certainly not some fantasy caped crusader–type.
Riley is clearly addressing the suffocating ubiquity of comic book movie adaptations and TV series and games and merchandise by making the character who calls himself “The Hero” the ultimate villain of the series. As played by the always-great Walton Goggins, this long-haired tech billionaire — real name, Jake Whittle — has the same kind of terminal narcissism, silly opulent lifestyle, delusional plans for the world, and right-wing conservative love for law and order combined with spurious talk of revolutionary transformation that we know all too well from our real-life versions of these dangerous dweebs.
Jones tries repeatedly to get Cootie to involve himself in the community and her political movement. But Cootie tells Jones that he’s heard something vaguely alarming about the consequences of political protest, like how “people get on an FBI list—”
“Everybody’s on the FBI list, might as well be for good reason,” she tells him.
But he’s also fully absorbed in his teenage obsessions, like figuring out how to get some money so he can buy the fast-food Bingbang Burgers long denied him, even after he tries them and discovers they’re actually disgusting. He keeps buying them anyway because he has a crush on one of the counter staff at Bingbang named Flora (Olivia Washington). She has her own half-hidden superpower, an innate hyperspeed tendency that she’s learned to deliberately control so she can interact with regular, slower people.
As more people focus on ways to use and get rid of Cootie, he’s pushed however reluctantly toward greater political involvement. Rents are jacked up and neighbors evicted, and Jones drafts Cootie into posting “FRUITVALE RENT STRIKE” signs, covering a whole wall with posters with a few sweeps of his huge arm. In one shocking episode, Cootie’s exuberant friend Scat (Allius Barnes) dies after being refused treatment at a local emergency room because he doesn’t have medical insurance.
As in Sorry to Bother You, the various fantastical effects in I’m a Virgo, which demonstrate again Riley’s dedication to practical effects rather than CGI whenever possible, are wonderfully imaginative. In one scene, Jones narrates an extended, remarkably elaborate animated sequence on the “crisis of capitalism” to explain what’s happening to people in Oakland, and America, and the world.
Another good example is Scat’s favorite show, an Adult Swim–style animated series called Parking Tickets. It’s a very convincingly and completely realized series created by Riley with the talented team of Ri Crawford and David Lauer, cofounders of Oakland-based Mystery Meat Media, who also worked on Sorry to Bother You. Voice actors include Danny Glover, Slavoj Žižek, and Joel Edgerton, plus Juliette Lewis doing just the recurring nonsensical “Boyoyoyoyoing!” exclamation. The series is received by Cootie’s friends as hilarious comedy in spite of its incredibly bleak narrative and philosophical content that confuses Cootie, who nevertheless learns to laugh along with the others.
In short, there’s so much daring and sophisticated work being done on this show I feel ashamed that I don’t love it 100 percent. The slower pace of the series has me harkening back to Sorry to Bother You. Part of what made that film such a blast was its compressed power. The way the wild, absurdist narrative took off so rapidly from its realistic premise of ordinary people’s money pressures, it effortlessly associated the surreal with capitalism and made absurd the whole process of striving for professional advancement within an insane system. It had an overwhelming emotional logic that seemed to require much less explanation.
But it’s so startling to see a series like I’m a Virgo, defying expectations at every turn, that of course I plan to keep on watching. It’s not just the show’s politics that are a rarity in mainstream television, it’s the way the politics have freed the imaginations of the creative team to think of something far different from what we’ve all seen ten thousand times before.