‘I’m a Virgo’ Season 1, Episode 1 Recap: Boots Riley wants to radicalize us

OPINION: Boots Riley's surreal, new TV series about a 13-foot-tall Black boy named Cootie isn't afraid to tackle the big ideas shaping our current times, from corporate greed to policing to anti-Black media narratives.

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

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Boots Riley said it’s time for the revolution! The innovative, afro-surrealist director of the award-winning 2018 film “Sorry to Bother You” is back with another absurdist, hella Black, distinctly anti-capitalist fable: “I’m a Virgo.” 

Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome stars as the aforementioned Virgo, a 19-year-old, 13-foot-tall Black boy named Cootie. The first episode opens on the chaos of his birth, doctors and nurses panicked and scrambling as his aunt, Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo), rocks and comforts a giant baby in her arms.

“Cootie. That’s your name, baby,” she says. It’s as if in those first few moments of his life, she’s already rightfully assessed how the world will see him: a louse, an imaginary germ or disease that children don’t want to catch. 

Jharrel Jerome as Cootie in “I’m a Virgo.” (Amazon Studios)

A Black baby boy in America inherits a devious world constructed for his destruction. But at least, for a time, when they’re small, with the measure of innocence a white supremacist world will allow them, these baby boys could be safe(r). A giant Black baby boy? He’s doomed from the start. 

His violent emergence from the womb (presumably) kills his mother and, fearful for his life, Lafrancine and her partner, Martisse, kidnap him from the hospital in the middle of the chaos and raise him in the seclusion of their home. 

Rapidly, he grows but must remain hidden, away from anyone who isn’t his adoptive parents. As he sneaks a peak at children playing outside, Lafrancine gives him a comic book starring a superhero known as “The Hero,” to keep him entertained. 

Years later, at 19, Cootie is still sheltered at home and obsessed with the crime-fighting superhero and his catchphrase, “Get your mind right, half-wits.” But now, the creator of the Hero comics, Jay Whittle (a deliciously unhinged Walton Goggins), has brought his character to life. A tech billionaire, Jay has devoted his life to building gadgets to help him fight crime in Oakland, just like in the comics. “The law leads to order and order is how we make sure everyone is safe,” Jay says in a televised interview with a Black woman reporter as he holds a gun against his own head. 

Through this sadistic Elon Musk-inspired weirdo, Riley flat out connects the dots between superhero entertainment as copaganda and the resulting pro-police populace that consumes it. Cootie, who has never been outside or met anyone who isn’t his parents, strongly believes in the principles of the Hero. Even his parents’ distaste for the Hero can’t sway him. 

It’s no wonder Cootie believes himself to have a greater purpose, like the Hero. In addition to the online astrologist Miss Dee, whom he watches daily to see what his Virgo destiny will be, his parents have also fed into the idea of his metaphorical greatness since his childhood. Every day, the three hold hands and have Cootie recite this mantra: “I’ll be ready for the world and ready for the pain. I suffer for the day when all shall gain.” They’re preparing him to go out on his own for the first time on his 21st birthday — an age too many Black boys never see. It’s an exaggerated example of a real Black parent dilemma: Do we shelter our children to the point of caging them inside our homes with us or raise them to be free and risk the anti-Black world caging them away from us?

But Cootie is too restless to wait another two years; he’s destroying the house they live in. His parents finally build him a tall house with big furniture in the backyard and an extremely tall fence.

But they won’t budge on letting him leave or on feeding him the “poison” of the popular Bing Bang Burgers he sees advertised in bizarrely pornographic TV commercials. (A clear knock on California burger chain Carl’s Jr.’s randomly sexist burger ads that ran from 2005-2017. To Riley’s credit, there’s no exploitation of women in the Bing Bang Burger ads, showing you can critique a social ill without perpetuating it. Take notes, Sam Levinson!) 

Unfortunately, a nosy neighbor has built a home on top of a tower of wooden stilts so he could see over Cootie’s tall fence and catches him napping. They strike up a conversation and the neighbor tells Cootie all about how he and Cootie’s dad used to scarf down Bing Bang Burgers back in the day. With Cootie’s faith in his parents shattered, he disobeys them and sneaks out at night disguised as a giant bush to people-watch fellow teens hanging out in a park. 

Felix (a hilarious Brett Gray) tries to pee on the bush and thinks he’s tripping when the bush backs away. But when Cootie finally up and runs away, Felix knows he’s seen a giant. His friends, Scat and Jones, don’t believe him, however, because he’s been smoking weed.

The next day, Felix makes a YouTube about seeing a “13-foot tall nigga” and has shirts printed of the drawing Felix made labeling Cootie, the Twamp Monster. The video goes viral. Felix, Jones and Scat end up hanging out next to Cootie’s fence and they see him and wind up sharing a joint. Cootie invites them inside and they become fast friends. They invite him out and Cootie obliges like his astrologist taught him: “I’m a Virgo; and Virgos love adventure!” 

But they make one pit stop first. Jones (an excellent Kara Young) is a community organizer and she’s trying to get out the word about the Fruitvale rent strike. Landlords are gouging tenants and evicting people who can’t pay. Cootie papers a building with rent strike flyers in no time and they’re off to the parking lot in Felix’s prized drop-top to show off for the car-loving crowd that’s taking turns doing donuts. 

When it’s Felix’s turn, Cootie hangs off the back of the car, making Felix and Jones almost airborne, wowing the crowd and becoming a hood legend. Even when the Hero shuts down the party and warns them that three or more people wearing similar clothes can be prosecuted as a gang, Cootie is still starstruck, as his friends look on, annoyed that he doesn’t yet get that cops are the bad guys.

Videos of the Twamp Monster doing donuts are already online and Cootie’s parents watch in dismay. They’re waiting on his couch when he gets home. He confronts them about their lies about never eating Bing Bang Burgers, and they promise him they’re not lying about the danger he’s in, even though the crowd he met seemed to love him. Lafrancine makes him read from a horrifying album of newspaper clippings that his parents have organized dating back centuries of giants being tortured and killed by mobs or enslaved — them or their body parts put on display at the circus. It gives Cootie nightmares, but his new friends and his first taste of freedom are too good to give up.

He leaves again with Felix, Scat and Jones and immediately goes to Bing Bang Burger. There he sees a beautiful Black girl, Flora (a gorgeous Olivia Washington), who’s in the back, wrapping burgers faster than the speed of light. He’s mesmerized by her, and she flirts back, showing him her Twamp Monster tee shirt under her Bing Bang Burger uniform. 

Finally, he tastes the burger he’s coveted for years, scarfing it down and then spitting it back into the bag. “It’s actually very disgusting,” he says, reminding me of my first In-N-Out Burger in L.A. (Seriously, why do Cali people lie about those very mid burgers?!) 

Undeterred, they go dancing at a club until the lights randomly shut off. Jones explains that, instead of upgrading the system to handle the community’s power needs, the greedy power company just randomly shuts off electricity to save money and keep the people under control. 

The let-out at the club is jumping and Cootie accidentally bumps into Bear, a man claiming the Lower Bottoms neighborhood in Oakland. Bear starts an altercation with the giant and loses. Videos of the fight quickly make the news, and the media begins sowing fear about Cootie’s size and potential for violence. Though Cootie might not yet understand the danger he’s in, fortunately, his parents do. “He ain’t ready, but we are,” says Martisse as the episode ends and he opens a secret wall filled with high-powered weapons. 

In just one episode, Riley has set the stage for our present-day capitalist, fascist nightmare: 

Corporate greed driving homelessness, poverty, poisoned cheap food, police control and anti-Black media spin. In one episode, through Jones, he’s also given a solution: a rent strike. 

It’s heavy-handed as hell, and I love it. Make it plain (and fun!) for the people. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the rest of Riley’s televised revolution.

Brooke Obie is an award-winning critic, screenwriter and author of the historical novel “Book of Addis: Cradled Embers.”

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