Big, Bold and Brilliant: Boots Riley's Surreal 'I'm a Virgo' Is Like No Other Series You Can Stream Right Now

Five years after 'Sorry to Bother You' stunned in cinemas, the musician-turned-filmmaker is back with a towering achievement of a streaming series.
Sarah Ward
Published on June 23, 2023

No one makes social satires like Boots Riley. Late in I'm a Virgo, when a character proclaims that "all art is propaganda", these words may as well be coming from The Coup frontman-turned-filmmaker's very own lips. In only his second screen project after the equally impassioned, intelligent, energetic, anarchic and exceptional 2018 film Sorry to Bother You, Riley doesn't have his latest struggling and striving hero utter this sentiment, however. Rather, it springs from the billionaire technology mogul also known as The Hero (Walton Goggins, George & Tammy), who's gleefully made himself the nemesis of 13-foot-tall series protagonist Cootie (Jharrel Jerome, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse).

Played with intensity by the inimitable Goggins, this head of "a modern computational instruments fortune" also publishes comic books about The Hero. In character, he dons a helicopter backpack to roam the skies and scour the streets for lawbreakers. He's also reminiscent of both Iron Man and Batman, and makes a target out of Cootie, his biggest fan, from the moment that the shy Black teen takes his first steps in the broader world at the age of 19. And, as he chats about creativity and its choices always being commentary, The Hero helps Riley stress a pivotal point. Knowing that all stories make a statement isn't just the domain of activists fighting for better futures for the masses, like himself, and he wants to ensure that his audience knows it.

Streaming via Prime Video from Friday, June 23, with all seven episodes dropping at once, I'm a Virgo is a show with something to say, and forcefully. On the big screen, Sorry to Bother You was the same. They both share more than just a creator, purpose and stunning outcome, which Riley also wants viewers to notice. Again, he sets his scene in a science fiction-infused alternate version of Oakland. Once more, he takes aim at capitalism — and savagely — alongside the prevailing status quo around race, class and wealth. Crying out for justice and equality, he remains concerned about the way that corporations and their ultra-rich overseers wield their power, influence and fortunes to control everyday lives. Riley is angry again, too, and wants everyone giving him their time to be bothered — and he still isn't sorry for a second.

With Jerome as well-cast a lead as Atlanta's Lakeith Stanfield was, I'm a Virgo also hinges upon a surreal central detail: instead of a Black telemarketer discovering the impact of his "white voice", it hones in on the oversized Cootie. When it comes to assimilation, consider this series Sorry to Bother You's flipside, because there's no way that a young Black man that's more than double the tallest average height is passing for anyone but himself. Riley knows that Black men are too often seen as threats and targets regardless of their stature anyway. He's read the research showing that white folks can perceive Black boys as older and less innocent. There isn't a single aspect of I'm a Virgo that doesn't convey Riley's ire at the state of the world — that doesn't virtually scream about it, actually — with this series going big and bold over and over.

How does someone so towering exist for nearly two decades without attracting attention? Via a massive effort by his cautious uncle Martisse (Mike Epps, You People) and aunt LaFrancine (Carmen Ejogo, Your Honor). They've brought Cootie up in secrecy, promising that he can venture out when he turns 21, and endeavouring to instil a wariness about how the world will treat him because he's black and preternaturally lofty. "People are always afraid, and you are a 13-foot-tall Black man," says LaFrancine. "People are gonna try to figure out how to use you and, when they can't use you no more, they're gonna try to get rid of you," Martisse warns. But, like anyone that's only ever experienced life beyond their own four walls and canopy-hidden backyard through windows and television, Cootie is curious and sick of being cooped up. Thanks to TV ads, he also desperately wants a Bing-Bang burger.

The first time he sneaks out, he's nicknamed "twamp monster" and goes viral. Next, he finds pals by reaching over the fence for a joint: the car-worshipping Felix (Brett Gray, Star Trek: Prodigy), laidback Scat (Allius Barnes, Cruel Summer) and fierce activist Jones (Kara Young, The Staircase). When Cootie finally tastes one of those coveted burgs, he swoons over Flora (Olivia Washington, Breaking), who works behind the counter and stands out with The Flash-esque super speed. Friends, fast food, falling in love: that's the coming-of-age path that I'm a Virgo charts, with the horoscope-abiding Cootie chasing adventure and attempting to work out who he is. Of course, most tales about teenagers discovering themselves don't also span giants, vigilantes, cults, streetwear modelling campaigns, shrunk-down people, stoner cartoons that incite existential malaise, odes to bass and rebellions for fair treatment, all while tearing into myths by spinning one, but Riley couldn't tell most tales even if he wanted to.

What Riley can and does craft is potent, probing, playful and piercing — a wild and wonderful series that has everything on its mind, too, and is determined to be unlike anything else that's streaming. This may be another story about heroes and villains, aka popular culture's prevailing type of narrative at present. And, it might sit on the same platform as The Boys. And yet, it couldn't be further from the onslaught of caped-crusader universes that frequently fill screens. As it contemplates and agitates, I'm a Virgo eschews slickness for authenticity visually as well. Practical effects are everywhere, with forced perspective getting a heavy workout and sets boasting a handmade feel. Puppetry, miniatures, animation that'd look at home on Adult Swim: they're also part of the series' experience. Imagination reigns supreme in every image, and the lack of dull CGI is a genuine sight for sore eyes.

Advocating for thinking and seeing differently is a task that I'm a Virgo adopts with the utmost seriousness, clearly, even as it constantly proves eagerly eccentric and sharply amusing. In other words, Riley is back doing what he does impeccably, but no one could ever accuse him of repeating himself. From racism and conformity to social hierarchies and capitalist domination, the parts of life that he's challenging demand continual scrutiny. Including exploited workers, violent policing and America's money-driven healthcare system that seems to regard living as a right only afforded those who can afford it, the distressing art-apes-life elements of I'm a Virgo's dystopian realm need interrogating in as many ways as possible. This won't be the last time that the filmmaker brings them to the screen, or champions a different way forward. Here's hoping that everything that follows — be it a second season of this or whatever Riley plies his talents on next — is as glorious and essential.

Check out the trailer for I'm a Virgo below:

I'm a Virgo streams via Prime Video from Friday, June 23.

Published on June 23, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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