"I'm a Virgo": Boots Riley's incredible, ungentle giant swing at late capitalism

The director of "Sorry to Bother You" uses comic book tropes to mask a creative fable about working class heroism

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 24, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Carmen Ejogo (Lafrancine) and Jharrel Jerome (Cootie) in "I'm a Virgo" (Amazon Studios)
Carmen Ejogo (Lafrancine) and Jharrel Jerome (Cootie) in "I'm a Virgo" (Amazon Studios)

All art is propaganda. Few understand that better than "I'm a Virgo" creator Boots Riley, the Bay Area-based hip-hop performer turned auteur filmmaker whose seven-episode Amazon series represents an original entry in the superhero genre. No famous characters from DC or the MCU appear here. Instead, we're introduced to Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), a 13-foot-tall young man sequestered from the outside world for 19 years.

Cootie's Aunt Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo) and Uncle Martisse (Mike Epps) provide him with everything he needs and raised him to be kind, caring and thoughtful. Eventually he grows curious about life beyond the walls of their Oakland home despite their warnings about its many hazards. Once Cootie sneaks out, he meets Feliz (Brett Gray), Jones (Kara Young) and Scat (Allius Barnes), who quickly acquaint him with Oakland's vibrancy, made by people who aren't wealthy or politically powerful but have a fierce sense of community.

He also discovers all the ways working-class people are preyed upon. Cops enforce illegal evictions. Rolling blackouts plague their neighborhoods, and the power company refuses to fix them. And a vigilante called The Hero (Walton Goggins) views everyone as criminals one step away from breaking the law, swooping in to brutalize in the name of justice.

Although his aunt and uncle make him spend most of his days reading, when he isn't bench-pressing the car in their yard, Cootie gleans some hints about how life works through TV. The Hero's catchphrase becomes his motto, and as he hurtles toward adventure he announces his excitement with a reality show line: "From that day forward, I knew nothing would stop me from achieving greatness."

Riley's career is an outgrowth of his calling to tear down the capitalist system crushing the 99 percent, and he also knows corporate marketing savvy is the powerful engine propelling neoliberalism's raging success. Marvel's franchise dominance is part of that – it sells power fantasies of god-like beings to adults and children woven through with the message that a benevolent, wealthy elite knows what's best for us. But it also renders reality primarily through CGI.

In watching "I'm a Virgo" one realizes how much joy gets left on the cutting room floor when imagination is digitized. Riley uses his share of classic cinematic tricks like forced perspective to show how much larger Cootie is than everyone else, but in the main, the visuals are defined by an analog edge that accentuates the fable's absurdity.

Goggins, representing cosplaying soldiers and desktop tyrants, leaps into his pompous hero with comedic vigor. It's revealed that The Hero is a trust fund baby comic book artist who decided to apply his two-dimensional fantasy of justice to the real world, bringing his cudgel down hardest on the working class he looks down on.

"I'm a Virgo" is an allegorical construction from the ground up,

In a classic superhero story, Cootie would be this place's great hope. Riley refuses to build or resolve "I'm a Virgo" so typically. Instead, we're struck by how vulnerable Cootie is both because of his stature and despite it.

Jerome sells the illusion of his height not merely with his bent frame as he moves through a world unfit for giants, but the palpable squinch in his smiles and around his eyes, as if being squeezed for so long has made his skin tighten around his bones. Only when he relaxes into a romance with Flora (Olivia Washington), whose superspeed is something of a curse she bears brightly, does Cootie comfortably expand.

People broaden Cootie's education, including letting him taste the truth behind perverse commercials for a fast-food joint called Bing Bang Burger, with its sandwiches drooling unappealing sauce. He doesn't like the burgers — although he can't help haunting Bing Bang, since that's where Flora works — but during joy rides with his friends he falls madly in love with thumping bass beats. "It sings to your bones," he tells Lafrancine and Martisse, distraught that they withheld something so wonderful from him for his entire life.

The sense of purity and eagerness radiating through Cootie bounces off the technicolor surroundings throughout Riley's Oakland, an absurdist wonderland where the mundane dissolves into animation and folks levitate in their bliss. He doesn't press into the weirdness of Cootie's situation, though. A love scene between Cootie and Flora, who is the size of a doll to him, gets off to an ungainly start before they figure out how to connect. It should be ridiculous but like every other visual in this show, it transforms into endearing and honest expression.

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"I'm a Virgo" is an allegorical construction from the ground up, with its main character standing as the most obvious emblem of Riley's message concerning the media's fearmongering related to young Black men and the cops operating as corporate security forces.

But it's also subversive in ways people only appreciate after sitting with it. The aesthetics speak a language all their own, incorporating cinematic references pulling from a swath of influences ranging between Terry Gilliam and Spike Lee. The set production captures the wild rawness of Oakland without denying its run-down buildings their beauty or diminishing its neighbors. Society is enthusiastic enough about doing that, as we see when an entire neighborhood is miniaturized overnight.

In watching "I'm a Virgo" one realizes how much joy gets left on the cutting room floor when imagination is digitized.

There's messaging in the lines dividing realms of privilege, too. The Hero's headquarters, for example, is a colorless, concrete-walled space, the type shown on design programs promoting their clean modernist lines.  This is the kind of setting we've conditioned to associate with industry and wealth, and it looks entirely drained of life.

The same can be said of most of what's offered on TV, which "I'm a Virgo" rebels against in its being. Even this has a note of irony to it, given that the show's platform is part of a corporation that's notoriously brutal on its warehouse workers. It's an odd delivery system for a TV show broadcasting an anti-capitalist, pro-worker message. Then again, successful artists are also realists – better to go big and be seen than keep it boxed in and hidden from us.  

"I'm a Virgo" is now streaming on Prime Video.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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