Home » ‘I’m a Virgo’ Review – Boots Riley Tops Himself with Rich & Stylish Satire | SXSW 2023

‘I’m a Virgo’ Review – Boots Riley Tops Himself with Rich & Stylish Satire | SXSW 2023

by James Preston Poole
Emmy-winning actor Jharrel Jerome stars as Cootie the 13-foot-tall young black man in I'M A VIRGO on Amazon Prime Video created by Boots Riley.

It’s rare to find a stamp of authenticity as valuable as the involvement of filmmaker Boots Riley. Starting off in music with a storied career of activism, Riley made his feature directorial debut in 2018 with the electric Sorry to Bother You. A thoroughly anti-capitalist satire where a black telemarketer figures out how to use a literal “white voice” to get ahead, on the strength of its biting script and direction alone that film almost certainly had every studio in town knocking down his door to give their best offers. Rather than rush a follow-up, Boots Riley bided his time, now unleashing onto us his even more ambitious successor, a TV series called I’m a Virgo for Amazon Prime Video. Going off the first four episodes, I’m a Virgo establishes a radically original vision with the makings of the next television sensation.

Akin to its predecessor, I’m a Virgo finds its setting in a heightened version of our reality. The term “magical realism” feels applicable here, as this version of Oakland, California is complete with such flourishes as a house on stilts, rolling blackouts that seem to shut the city down every five minutes, and an omnipresent fast food corporation called “Bing Bang Burger” flooding the airwaves with over-sexualized ads. People with special abilities are sparse, but hiding in the shadows. The only superhero of sorts who isn’t hiding is the comic book mogul turned tech-based crime fighter known as “The Hero” (Walton Goggins), who patrols the streets even though his tough stance on petty crime strikes a nasty chord amongst the impoverished Oakland citizens. It’s in this not-so-absurd take on modern America that Cootie, a 13-foot-tall young black man, must hide away if he is to avoid extreme prejudice. 

As portrayed by the Emmy-winning Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us), Cootie is an inherently likable character. Raised by his aunt and uncle (Carmen Ejogo and Mike Epps), he harbors a natural curiosity for the streets of Oakland, filtered through television and his love for comic books. Cootie’s size is a vessel for great sight gags, like eating a full plate of tacos that look miniature in comparison to him. The giant is brought to life by a fairly seamless, charming employment of CGI and forced perspective that never feels fake. His longing to break free finally leads him to take a step outside, making fast friends with a group of locals played by Brett Gray (On My Block), Kara Young (The Punisher), and Allius Barnes (Cruel Summer). When he leaves the ramshackle guest home his surrogate parents have built for him, Cootie embarks on a joyous journey.

Allius Barnes, Brett Gray, and Kara Young meet the 13-foot-tall black giant Cootie for the first time and pass him a blunt in the Oakland streets in the satirical dark comedy I'M A VIRGO on Amazon Prime Video.
Allius Barnes, Brett Gray, & Kara Young in ‘I’m a Virgo’
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Viewers will be struggling to wipe permanent grins off their faces as Cootie’s sheltered self tries to flirt at a bar he can barely fit into, or use his massive weight to make a shabby drop-top go up on two wheels at a car meet. Try not to cheer when Cootie slaps three adversaries with one weak swipe of his open palm. That joy gives way to the harsh realities of the Oakland streets whenever Cootie makes his presence known to all around him. Along with a company of solid directors and a writer’s room including Tze Chun, Marcus Gardley, Michael R. Jackson, and Whitney White, Boots Riley lets his satirical flag fly in I’m a Virgo. For as ready as Cootie might be ready to see the world, the world may not be ready to see him.

Corporations run society in I’m a Virgo. There’s even a cult of people dressed up in black turtlenecks clearly echoing Steve Jobs’ iconic look. It’s a wonder how much a big corporation like Amazon let Boots Riley get away with, but that irony almost adds to what makes it so great. More so, an idea running deep through Riley’s mind appears to be the commodification of black bodies. Specifically, the suppression of black excellence for white consumption. The massive size of Cootie gains him an agent, who at first tries to get him into sports before settling to have him work as a model, posing in not-so-subtly racist installations where he’s stood up like a monster chasing white mannequins. 

This notion gets further backed up by the character of Flora (Olivia Washington). She’s Cootie’s love interest, which leads to a size-defying sex scene that is, yes, very funny, but she also has powers of super speed. A flashback involving her learning to control these powers parallels Cootie’s own journey of trying to do the same, though she vows to use her powers to help the community. This makes her an interesting counterpoint to Cootie who is barely learning how he fits into the equation with his stature, both figuratively and literally. Meanwhile, Cootie’s aunt and uncle seem to have a past as (potentially superpowered) vigilantes of sorts who want Cootie to avoid the same unspoken fate they did. This hammers home another piece of rich commentary in I’m a Virgo: the omnipresence of superhero culture in our society.

Walton Goggins wears white tech-based armor and sports long hair as the fascist superhero known as The Hero and holds a large deed surrounded by police officers in white masks in the dark absurdist comedy I'M A VIRGO on Amazon Prime Video.
Walton Goggins in ‘I’m a Virgo’ courtesy of Amazon Studios

Don’t expect an “all superheroes are bad” take à la The Boys from Boots Riley. Instead, I’m a Virgo finds nuance by asking the question of who we hold up as heroes. Walton Goggins’ superhero persona “The Hero” is an unabashed fascist, using his tech to further hurt the impoverished to the loud cheers of onlookers. That old adage of “why doesn’t Batman use his money to help the city more meaningfully?” comes to life in Goggins’ cruel and twisted idol. It’s really saying something that the super-powered individuals in I’m a Virgo are either in hiding, exploited, quietly trying to make the world a better place, or using their abilities to throw their weight around. Boots Riley still makes sure to put the focus on Cootie’s friends, whose community efforts to stop evictions are rightfully painted as the real righteous heroism going on. 

Anchored by an endearing turn from Jharrel Jerome and bolstered by the music of Oakland-based art pop duo Tune-Yards and Boots Riley’s own band The Coup, I’m a Virgo will leave you immediately wanting more each time the credits roll. That’s the mark of a damn good show. Moreover, it’s the mark of something fresh that will break through the noise of the endless stream of television, on streaming no less. There’s still much more to explore, but it’s safe to say this Prime Video original is destined to go far. Highly imaginative and deeply satirical without being exploitative of the issues of classism and racial disparity it explores, I’m a Virgo is another very impressive notch in Boots Riley’s belt. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait five more years for his next project, although it would be well worth the wait.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I’m a Virgo premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. The series will release on Amazon Prime Video later this Summer.

Follow writer James Preston Poole on Twitter: @JamesPPoole

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