‘I’m a Virgo’ Season 1, Episode 5 Recap: How they see us

OPINION: Cootie deals with negative media stories about him, while the residents of the Lower Bottoms — who were literally shrunk down overnight — start to organize against greedy landlords and corporations who've pushed them to the margins.

Jharrel Jerome (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.

We’re onto the fifth episode of Boots Riley’s “I’m a Virgo,” “Brillo, If Possible,” and the stakes couldn’t be higher — or in this case, lower. Bear (Craig Tate) — the self-appointed leader of the Lower Bottoms neighborhood of Oakland, whose fight with Cootie outside of a nightclub in the pilot episode made Cootie a local news phenomenon – has been shrunk! 

One night, Bear is doing donuts in the parking lot, as usual. Then, the next morning he wakes up naked, drowning in his bedsheets, to discover that he’s shrunk down to six inches tall. Undeterred, he rigs a microphone to a toy car and rides around the Lower Bottoms letting everyone know what happened to him and that his barbecue business is still in effect regardless. As he rides around, he sees that it’s not just him — everyone in Lower Bottoms has been shrunk and is either naked or, like him, covering their nakedness with old receipts. 

All season, through Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), a 13-foot-tall Black male teenager, we’ve seen the metaphor of the monsterification of Black male kids. Kids like Mike Brown whose killer cop Darren Wilson described the teen like he was some sort of mystical giant boogeyman instead of a human kid with his whole life ahead of him. Blackness in male form, Riley suggests, can make you hyper-visible in a violent, anti-Black world. 

But with the shrinking of the people of Lower Bottoms, Riley also shows how Blackness in any form can mark you for erasure by the agents of white supremacist capitalism. The shrunken Lower Bottoms people have been fired from their jobs since they can no longer show up to work; they’ve been evicted or had their houses foreclosed on because they can’t pay bills, and they’re huddling together to survive a world that has targeted them and pushed them out of sight into the margins of white supremacist capitalist society. It’s a genius metaphor. 

Bear (Craig Tate) organizes his community in “I”m a Virgo.” (Amazon Studios)

As the Lower Bottoms folks try to reorganize themselves, the news plays in the background with a chyron reading: “Hero Captures Twamp Monster,” as two talking heads of the show “Frenemy Fire” debate whether the “thug” Cootie, who was arrested by the Hero in the last episode for graffitiing Scat’s name on a building (aka “destroying property”) should’ve been dragged through the streets in chains, as the Hero did to Cootie, or merely handcuffed. 

It’s a hilarious scene, with Riley sautéeing IRL white liberal talking heads who swear they’re “down” and can speak for Black people, even as they shout over the actual Black people in the room. “Go to Oakland and ask [Black people] how they say ‘20,’ because I’m in these streets!” The liberal anchor, who has lots of Black friends and would vote for Obama a third time, argues with the more openly racist anchor. A wide shot shows the Black female anchor we’ve seen all season is also there, sitting in between the two, exasperated but silent. And complicit. 

It turns out, the Hero doesn’t have a cell big enough to hold Cootie in, so Cootie’s on house arrest for 120 days. It’s day five, and he’s still reading the Hero comics and justifying it by saying he knows the difference between the ideals laid out in the comic and the fascist who dragged him through the streets and placed him under house arrest for graffiti. “This is what really matters,” he explains, holding the comic up to his mom, Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo).

Is Riley skewering the U.S. Constitution-defending liberals who still believe in the promise of this country’s “ideals” that have literally never, at any point in history, actually applied to non-white men and (later) women? I’d like to think so.

Cootie continues to not read the room when a still-grieving Felix (Brett Gray) comes over to work on his prized car that keeps breaking down. Cootie has found the silver lining in Scat’s death in that it makes him recognize that living is also happening even more. There’s infinite life ahead of them, he says, not infinite death. Without realizing it, Cootie echoes the “Parking Tickets” episode that foreshadowed Scat’s death. 

But Felix is deep in grief and not trying to hear about silver linings. He’s unable to fix his car and starts talking about it bleeding out like Scat did. Cootie tries to comfort him, saying Felix was a good friend to Scat and he did everything he could. Felix won’t hear it and even throws a low blow, suggesting if he hadn’t been “babysitting” Cootie by helping him prepare for his first sexual experience with Flora (Olivia Washington), Felix would’ve been with Scat instead and maybe he wouldn’t have died. He drives away as the creepy cult of pasty white people in black turtlenecks returns again to try to recruit Cootie as their Messiah. He ignores them until they go away.

But one person who refuses to leave Cootie during his 120-day house arrest is Flora. She’s been spending every day with Cootie until it’s time for her to go to work, and her unconscious lip smacking is starting to get on his nerves. She’s not faring any better with his surprise farts that she says are putting sulfur in her lungs. They get into their first little spat about it, which leads Cootie to promise to shower and Flora to gently demand that he use soap and a washcloth, and, as the episode title suggests, “Brillo, if possible.” 

Meanwhile, Cootie is consumed by a “57 Minutes” news segment where people hypothesize about what Cootie could hypothetically do to them and how bad Cootie should feel for what he did to them in their dreams. 

This satire is satirizing on all cylinders as the central role of the news media in creating a Black male boogeyman as an old white woman “artistic interpreter” comes on to analyze Cootie’s graffiti of Scat’s name as a threat for everyone to “get away” from Cootie or else. 

As cootie showers, angered and fearful about the news segment, his month-old rash looks worse and more painful. Though he’s been fired from his modeling gig at Asphalt Royalty for getting arrested, he’s still been wearing their clothes, which could perhaps be the source of the rash. 

He finds comfort in the online psychic reading the daily mantra for Virgos. But when the next video autoplays, he learns that Miss Dee is a fraud and all of her readings for every sign are exactly the same and equally meaningless. While everyone around him (besides Flora) finds his size to be the most fascinating thing about him, Cootie has rooted his identity in being a Virgo and mentions it as much as possible when explaining his thoughts and ideas. His already fragile sense of self folds even more when he learns Miss Dee is a fraud and he has no idea what, if anything, it means to be a Virgo.

On his last day of house arrest, he’s watching the Black female news anchor interview Jones (Kara Young) about the general strike she’s leading for fair wages, housing and health care as human rights in the wake of corporations’ complaints about lack of motivated workers. Krown Hospital workers were the first to strike to try to get the hospital to change the policies that killed Scat.

Jones says if they don’t all come together to strike, the corporations will do to them all what they’ve done to the people of the Lower Bottoms — taking away their abilities to afford to live and work. The strikers are growing in numbers. The message is working. 

Cootie nervously scrolls through dozens of videos of police training to fight giants. Then, he watches a video of the Hero announcing he’s built a prison big enough to hold Cootie. Next, it’s a “Law & Order: SVU” episode of police interrogating a bruised-up Flora look-alike about her violent, giant predator lover who assaulted her. Then it’s commercials for an alarm system company depicting a cartoon version of Cootie destroying white people’s homes to sell their products. Finally, his latest “The Hero” comic arrives in the mail and Cootie’s on the cover, wrapped in chains as the Hero defeats him. His dad Martisse’s (Mike Epps) words about how the world would turn him into the villain by any means necessary have finally sunk in. 

Cootie rips the comic up, then decides: He’ll be the villain. “I’ll make villains the new heroes,” he tells his parents, who have been preparing for this moment for 19 years. Martisse shares that they’ve been securing the house and building weapons to fit him, including a set of brass knuckles that say “love” and “hate” on them. Cootie picks them up and wears them, an obvious nod to Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” But what the “right” thing is for Cootie to do next is still unclear — even to Cootie.

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

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