Boots Riley is known for his unique vision, sometimes using the fantastical to point out the realities of the world with campy pinpoint effect. Screening the first four episodes at SXSW Film & TV Festival 2023, I’m A Virgo is Riley’s most recent project. A Prime Video Original series, Riley and Tze Chun serve as showrunners and writers for I’m a Virgo, which is also directed by Riley. The series stars Jharrel Jerome, Brett Gray, Kara Young, Allius Barnes, Olivia Washington, Mike Epps, and Carmen Ejogo.
In the series, audiences step into a fantastical coming-of-age story with a 13-foot-tall young Black man in Oakland, California named Cootie as the center. To keep Cootie safe from a hostile world, his adoptive parents have hidden him from the world, never allowing him to leave their home. With a net hiding him from prying neighbors and a strict schedule and enough lies about the outside world to make any child terrified, Cootie knows nothing about the world outside. Well, I mean, he knows it’s dangerous. But when Cootie finally ventures outside, he experiences the beauties and contradictions of our society for the very first time.
A campy and insightful story that uses genre for a mythic examination of what happens when the oppressed rise up. But more importantly, through Cootie, Riley explores the process of moving from identifying with the oppressor in a story who he thinks is a hero to understanding the reality of the world. Or rather that the true heroes are overlooked or hidden when stories get told. In that way, I’m a Virgo is a refreshing take on the superhero genre, without being restrained by the trappings of it. I’m a Virgo is a feat of directing, acting, and ultimately a masterclass in using the weirdness of the sci-fi and fantasy genre for telling stories about larger societal ills. There is undoubtedly a lot to love about the series, but at the same time, the things that grab may also be the elements that divide those who watch.
As Cootie, Jharrel Jerome is vulnerable and endearing. He offers up a rich and dynamic performance that is filled with the curiosity and innocence of a child while also leveraging that same naivete as a way to explore society and what it means to be man, more specifically a Black man in society. The ability to blend fantasy with societal pressures, expectations, and ills is as much a success for showrunners Boots Riley and Tze Chun as it is for Jharrel Jerome as our lead. We see the world through his eyes; he is the empathy and heart of the series that viewers fall in love with easily.
The absurdity, the whimsy, and ultimately the weirdness of I’m A Virgo is what makes it a success. It takes all of that and uses it to tell a grounded story of belonging and morality in a way that feels naive and exploratory in the best ways.
On top of it all, I’m A Virgo succeeds greatly because of how it uses practical effects. While many series rely on CGI, I’m A Virgo uses meticulously crafted sets and props to make Jerome larger than life as Cootie. The way the practical effects work is layered onto existing scenes adds to the series’s whimsy. Even when the story hits more grounded or emotionally dark notes, the effects work don’t let up on the otherworldliness of I’m A Virgo and that makes Cootie all the more endearing as a character.
The world around him feels thought out with a space larger enough for him to live made out of different buildings, his clothes a patchwork of other clothes, and regular-sized items are tiny in his hands; all of it is expertly crafted and planned. The feat of having Cootie exist in the same world as the rest of the cast while simultaneously looking like he’s in his own is beyond noteworthy.
I’m a Virgo is an excellent exploration of social themes through fantasy. The series uses the beauty of genre storytelling to show audiences a coming-of-age story that explores the contradictions of the world. It’s a series that understands how to use the absurdity of its premise to showcase the complexity of the morality behind heroes. It pulls apart who gets to set moral foundations and who is oppressed by them. The absurdity, the whimsy, and ultimately the weirdness of I’m A Virgo make it a success. It uses all of that to tell a grounded story of belonging and morality in a way that feels naive and exploratory in the best ways.
I’m A Virgo Episodes 1 – 4 were screened as a part of the SXSW Film & TV Festival 2023.
I'm A Virgo
- Rating - 8.5/108.5/10
I’m a Virgo is an excellent exploration of social themes through fantasy.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.