‘I’m a Virgo’ Is More Than Just a TV Show for Creator Boots Riley

Boots Riley knows there’s nothing in the entertainment space like “I’m a Virgo,” a comedy about a 13-foot-tall Black teenager living in Oakland. There’s also no creator in the world of television quite like Riley.

The rapper and social activist made his feature directorial debut with 2018’s “Sorry to Bother You,” a widely praised film centered on a Black telemarketer who puts on a white accent to charm his clients. The movie received near universal critical acclaim and established Riley’s distinct style that blends cartoonish magical realism and bleak science fiction with searingly topical political statements about modern day racism, class warfare, unionization and the evils of capitalism. It’s not unusual for his worlds to be filled with CEOs hellbent on turning their workers into hybrid monsters or fry cooks who casually have the power of superspeed. “I’m a Virgo” is no exception.

“My goals are so far above making a movie or making a TV show that I’m not excited just by the fact that I get to make a movie or I get to make a TV show,” Riley told TheWrap. “I want to see a large movement that transforms society. [‘I’m a Virgo’] is just me pitching in for that.”

The absurdist comedy from Prime Video feels like more of an elevated art piece than a traditional comedy series. Supersized Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) comes from an extremely sheltered home. When he leaves the bubble of his family, he initially relishes the awestruck attention from the people around him. But the more time he spends in the real world, the more aware he becomes that people are villainizing him and using him to push their own selfish agendas. Ultimately, “I’m a Virgo” becomes the story of a young, optimistic Black kid who wakes up to the fact he’s being used as a prop and a scapegoat in a capitalistic society.

Jerome described Cootie as a “larger-than-life-sized version” of the “plight a Black man goes through” in America.

“[He’s] someone who is full of soul and bright ideas and a future that’s sort of unclear,” he said. “But the second he steps outside, who knows what the world may view him as?”

Though “I’m a Virgo” marks Riley’s first foray into television, he didn’t face as many challenges adapting to the format as other creators might. “[Amazon] knew what they were getting, to a certain extent,” the director explained. “I think that’s what happens when people get into business with me. It’s not like they’re expecting a heist movie. I’m not going to change my vision that much.”

Allius Barnes (left), Brett Grey and Kara Young in “I’m a Virgo.” (Prime Video)

But even with a streamer that was sold on his vision, the transition to television was not without hiccups. With a series this reliant on practical and special effects, working within the budget was challenging. Riley’s cost-cutting solution was to give each character (except for Cootie) only one outfit, both for the actor and the doll version used in the series. Though this was essentially a financial decision, it also contributed to the comedy’s cartoonish vibe.

Riley credits his social activism and history as a performer for the unique voice that defines his work. He has been actively involved in the Occupy Oakland Movement, founded The Young Comrades and is a vocal supporter of Palestinian liberation. Additionally, performing with his bands has taught Riley the importance of collaboration and paying attention to the audience’s reaction.

An anti-capitalist’s latest project being funded and distributed by one of the biggest companies on the planet may seem odd, but so far, the partnership has been beneficial to both parties. Prime Video gets to boast supporting a daring,
critically-acclaimed darling on its platform; Riley gets the financial and creative support that Amazon offers, not to mention a global platform.

“What’s really happening is, I’m making art that’s true to what I think about and care about in the world, which is what I think artists should do,” Riley said. “I have opinions about what will change the world, and those opinions for me have been shaped, not by watching other media, but by being involved in [social] organizations that are trying to change the world.”

This story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

The post ‘I’m a Virgo’ Is More Than Just a TV Show for Creator Boots Riley appeared first on TheWrap.