Since 1991, Boots Riley has been the frontman for hip-hop group The Coup, who specialize in marrying radical left-wing politics to danceable soul-influenced beats. And while he’s far from the first musician to cross over into filmmaking, he makes a solid case for being the best. His 2018 debut as a writer/director, Sorry to Bother You, managed to work equally well as a Mike Judge-style office comedy, a Spike Lee-style political polemic, and a Michel Gondry-style surrealist head trip, while being a scathing indictment of capitalism in the Bezos era.
His follow-up, Amazon Prime series I’m a Virgo, looks to be the same mixture of satirical and surreal. We open on a woman holding a bloody newborn more than half her height (she turns out to be his aunt; his mother unsurprisingly didn’t survive childbirth). We get a montage of his adoptive parents playing with their giant toddler, Cootie, who they feel compelled to hide from the world for fear that someone will take their medical marvel away. By the time he’s a gigantic 19-year-old (Jharrel Jerome, who previously played young Kevin in Moonlight), who can barely make it from room to room without destroying the house, he’s sheltered from the world, which he only sees through TV, and a view of a nearby house inexplicably on stilts.
Through TV, we learn that Oakland, where Cootie and his family live, is home to a real-life superhero. Known simply as The Hero, he’s the creation of unbalanced millionaire Jay Whittle (Walton Goggins) who first creates a comic book hero and then becomes him in real life.
His dad Martisse (Mike Epps) finally builds him a custom-built house until he turns 21 and can be revealed to the world. Why his parents chose this date isn’t clear, as is why they call Bing Bang Burgers — fast food whose TV commercials constantly tempt Cootie — “the poison” and refuse to buy him any.
The plot thickens when a neighbor calls over the fence to say hi. He can see Cootie from the stilt house, and knows his uncle, who he lets slip loves Bing Bang Burgers. It’s a small thing, but it sets off a growing realization that Cootie’s parents have been lying to him. If the burgers aren’t poison, maybe the police don’t automatically arrest any black man who doesn’t have a job, and maybe he won’t be taken away by the government the minute he shows himself outside.
Encouraged by the neighbor, Cootie sneaks out to watch a block party, disguised as a 13-foot-tall hedge. He’s immediately discovered by a partygoer who tries to pee in the bush before it runs away. No one entirely believes him, but that doesn’t stop him from posting videos about the giant roaming around Oakland, who quickly becomes a favorite urban legend.
The partygoer (Felix, Jerome’s When They See Us costar Brett Gray) returns with his friends, and from the sidewalk outside Cootie’s house, glimpses him through the bushes. They’re not just there to gawk, they hang out and make friends with Cootie, and convince him to leave home for the first time ever. They ride through the city — the giant teenager propped up on the trunk of Felix’s convertible, gazing in wonder at downtown Oakland, and in turn seen by a largely unfazed public.
Naturally he’s immediately caught by his parents. His mom shows him a book of newspaper clippings of giants Cootie’s size from the past — killed by police, beaten by mobs, displayed in freak shows, enslaved. There’s one every generation. Cootie’s seen the book before, the stories gave him nightmares, but this time it doesn’t have the same effect. His mother is afraid of how much society will fear a 13-foot-tall black man, but in Cootie’s brief experience, people were excited to see him, an urban legend in the flesh. (In fairness, apart from the Hispanic neighbor in the stilt house, everyone else who saw him was also black. Who knows if his appearance would have played as well in the suburbs.)
So he goes out again. His friends take him to Bing Bang Burgers (“These are actually very bad”) and a warehouse dance club where he drinks from Solo cups that look like shot glasses in his hands. He’s making friends, he’s having a good time, and the world isn’t such a scary place after all.
Until a drunk outside the club decides to pick a fight. The giant is unfazed by the drunk and his friends’ Lilliputian punches, and gently slaps the group of them across the face all at once, gently saying “sorry” as they retreat. But as his parents see on the news, the police are called. Maybe the outside world isn’t so safe after all. And then, like any good pilot episode, we get one last twist that suggests there’s more to the parents’ secrecy than we realized. Tune in next week.
• Given Cootie’s size difference from the other characters, virtually every shot in the show is a VFX shot. Most of it works very well — this giant teenager feels tangible and his world feels lived-in. There are only a few moments (the fight in particular) where you can see the seams.
• Cootie’s speech to his parents about listening to a subwoofer for the first time is terrific — a very specific example that manages to stand in for everything he’s missed out on in his sheltered life. As with Sorry to Bother You, Riley excels at taking a surreal situation and making it feel universal.
• There are also a few surreal touches in the episode — a woman making burgers moves at hyperspeed; Cootie’s attacker flies up to his eye level in slow motion — and it’s not yet clear whether these are supposed to be seen as stylized or literal.
• Besides Boots Riley writing every episode and directing the first two and last (of seven), The Coup also provides the soundtrack (in collaborations with Tune-Yards, as they also did for Sorry to Bother You).