In 2018, writer-director Boots Riley unleashed his debut feature Sorry to Bother You upon the world. It was a bold reintroduction for the artist while still never feeling like it was ever compromising. Overflowing with sly humor, it was the type of movie that took no prisoners and wasn’t afraid to come at the cruel contradictions of capitalism. It flirted with a more surreal darkness before diving in headfirst, kicking you in the chest with the force of a horse, and leaving you reeling in the best way possible. Whether you want to call it magical realism or satirical science fiction, it was a fresh vision that immediately made Riley one to watch. His new project, the series I’m a Virgo, could not have been more worth the wait. It is not just a triumphant return for him, but a showcase for actor Jharrel Jerome, who steps into some enormous shoes without ever missing a beat. Big on ambition yet precisely focused, it is one of those works that promises to get people talking just as Riley did five years ago. In the first episodes shown at SXSW, there is so much vibrancy and life on display already.
It all begins with the young Cootie (Jerome), whose world is small even as he is rather big. Specifically, he stands 13 feet tall. Everything, from objects he holds to the ceiling, is infinitesimal by comparison, with meticulously constructed visual gags recalling the cramped offices of Being John Malkovich. However, Riley takes this a step further and never runs out of creative ways to explore how Cootie has to live his life. From bench pressing an entire car to the immense amount of food he has to consume, it is all about finding humor and heart in the details. Notably, and this is crucial, the series is not about making him into a spectacle.
More than just his size, Cootie is a complex character with aspirations and dreams for himself that can’t be confined. He is being raised by Martisse (Mike Epps) and Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo), who are doing everything they can to care for him, though he is quickly outgrowing their small home, both in terms of his size and his curiosity for the world around him. Even when they build him his own house in their backyard to give him his space, Cootie still wants to know what else is out there. His primary portal into society writ large is the television, which Riley uses to skewer the way commercialism and corruption are baked into the fabric of our media diet (just as he did in Sorry to Bother You). Once Cootie goes into the outside world of modern-day Oakland, he discovers there is still much he has to both learn and unlearn.
Much of this sees Riley riffing on the elements he did in said prior film. Just like LaKeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green, Cootie finds himself confronted with the choice between selling out and sticking by his newfound friends. Rather than feeling overly familiar, this takes on a much greater depth as we get the chance to see the people around him in far more detail. Some of this may come from how this is a series with more time to explore than a feature, but it also feels like Riley has gotten better at honing in on ideas expressed via characters. Every new person that we meet brings different perspectives as they introduce Cootie to the world. This takes the shape of joyous sequences where they get up to various shenanigans that are then intercut with more incisive ones about the challenges the struggling community is facing. Without tipping anything off too much, Riley continues to use the eccentricities of the story to call attention to the dark absurdities of our day-to-day lives under capitalism. The struggles of working people to make rent, access healthcare, and just survive are as much a part of the fabric of the series as its surreal hook.
What makes I’m a Virgo work in ways that puts it a cut above Sorry to Bother You is how it doesn’t hold back, instead coming right out of the gate with more of its bigger swings on display. In particular, there is one television interview with a man known as Jay Whittle who is humorously identified as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and, if that wasn’t self-aggrandizing enough, hero by the chyron. Played by Walton Goggins in rare form, the character suddenly points a gun at his head and begins talking about the necessity of the law to keep us safe from any sort of complexity. It is as if he has fallen under a trance and, as we come to know his character later in the series, we begin to understand how he is merely an embodiment of one of the many death cults that Cootie will have to navigate. This creates a real connection to him as we see his early experiences with loss and love. The journey it takes in these first four episodes still only feels like it is just scratching the surface of its ambitions. Riley never shies away from absurdity, eliciting earned laughs as Cootie becomes caught up in maddening elements of modern life that also prove to be perilous. It is often silly, and all the better for it, as we’re led by the enormous hand of the gentle giant discovering the world for the first time.
This is conveyed through striking visuals, both in capturing the size of Cootie and slowing things way down as we come to know those with other unique abilities. Without robbing the reveals of their impact, this is a bit of a stealth superhero satire. One could be tempted to compare it to elements of The Boys, especially as we observe a character who resembles Judge Dredd terrorizing the community of Oakland from the sky, but I’m a Virgo is a show that brings its own fraught reflections which end up feeling more grounded. One monologue at the end of the fourth episode makes it clear that Riley is not interested in holding back for the sake of subtlety. Just as the characters in this story are facing a crisis that requires taking a sledgehammer to the rules, so too are we. Though no show is going to change anything on its own, it is joyous to see Riley use his platform to express what is on his mind. The more we get glimpses into his vision, with all its rich creativity and righteous outrage bursting free in unexpected directions, the better that I’m a Virgo promises to be.
I’m a Virgo premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and will be released this summer exclusively on Prime Video.