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Boots Riley's Fantastical New TV Series Explores the Divide Between Heroism and Activism

I'm a Virgo unpacks the complexities of enacting justice.
  • Olivia Washington, Jharrel Jerome, and Brett Gray in I'm a Virgo (Photo: Pete Lee/Amazon Studios; Primetimer graphic)
    Olivia Washington, Jharrel Jerome, and Brett Gray in I'm a Virgo (Photo: Pete Lee/Amazon Studios; Primetimer graphic)

    Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) grew up idolizing superheroes. The 13-foot-tall teen at the center of the surrealist comedy I’m a Virgo spent his childhood sheltered by his Aunt Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo) and Uncle Martisse (Mike Epps), who vowed to protect him a world not yet ready for a Black man of such towering height. And during that time, Cootie became fixated on The Hero (Walton Goggins), a real-life, mega-rich vigilante who started as a standard fictional comic book superhero written by his alter ego, Jay Whittle. Cootie faithfully read the comics, glued to the TV every time The Hero held a news conference, continuing to build his own fantasy of who The Hero was and how he served the world — for 19 years, it was his only connection to what was happening beyond his door.

    It’s not until Cootie finally steps out of his home, kicking off his journey in this Prime Video series, that he learns that there’s more than one way to enact justice, not to mention an extremely fine line between being a hero and being a villain. Boots Riley’s fantastical and enthralling coming-of-age satire explores the differences between heroism, activism, and the struggle of figuring out how to actually do good.

    In an interview with Primetimer, Ejogo makes the clear connection between those ideas explored in the series and how they relate to current events. In particular, she references recent protests in reaction to the murder of Jordan Neely on a New York City Subway.

    “It’s interesting because someone had to step up and be the main voice in the room,” Ejogo says. “But that can often then look like somebody that’s taking over and being sort of demi-god-like or sort of now this is the person you have to look to, and you can then lose sight of the fact that you’re actually all there trying to protest something together.”

    Realistic protests abound in I’m a Virgo, which is set in present day Oakland, as well. Cootie is first lured out of his home by a group of young activists — Felix (Brett Gray), Scat (Allius Barnes), and Jones (Kara Young) — who spend their free time partying and growing their community, yes, but also speaking out against inhumane healthcare systems, unjust evictions, and violations of basic human rights. Jones, who, like many who have started the largest activist movements, is a queer Black woman, is the de facto leader because she knows how to get things done. When Cootie becomes a viral sensation and falls for Flora (Olivia Washington), a fast food worker fighting against food inequity with unique abilities of her own, the group dynamic is altered.

    Cootie gets distracted by a lot of the shiny, hypnotic parts of capitalist society that he romanticized from afar, while also seeing the violence, inequity, classism, and racism that his aunt and uncle protected him from for the first time. He becomes fully disillusioned when he finally meets The Hero face to face, causing him to explore exactly how to best empower those around him and channel his penchant for heroism into something meaningful to preserve the purely joyous parts of life he’s now experienced.

    Riley’s signature style and tone, which he introduced in the 2018 feature film Sorry to Bother You, are evident here as well, though I’m a Virgo is slightly more optimistic with slightly less body horror. Both satirize capitalist society, but whereas Sorry to Bother was more of a cautionary tale, I’m a Virgo offers a more empowering and inspiring message about community action. In an interview with SF Gate, Riley detailed how his own experience as a teen activist in Oakland directly inspired the characters Cootie meets, particularly a group of young girls Riley met when he was 14.

    “They were very politically advanced, and I heard them talking about things that I had been shutting out,” he told SF Gate. “Things on the news, talking about the world, as if they could actually change it. After a while, I wanted to be them.”

    Cootie also starts to believe he can actually change the world, he’s just unsure of the path to accomplish that. He’s had a lifelong desire to be heroic, soaring through the skies to maintain the law, like his idol The Hero. But his newfound group of friends, whose boots-on-the-ground work he also admires, have labeled The Hero as public enemy number one. Cootie struggles to unravel how these two factions can be so diametrically opposed when they both claim to be fighting for a greater cause. What is the real difference between being a hero and being an activist? Gray, who plays the fun-loving and ultra supportive Felix, claims the divide is clear.

    “Hero is about ego,” he tells Primetimer. “It implies that you are right, and that there is a black and white, that you’re on the side of the righteous. Activism is about pulling a community of people with different experiences together and trying to find common ground between all of them and ensure the path of least resistance as opposed to the path of control.”

    The driving force behind The Hero, an obvious proxy for the police, is that absolute: There are laws, and those who break them get punished. He’s a white man who lives in a high-rise and uses his extreme wealth to create Ironman-esque suits and gadgets that allow him to closely monitor the citizens of Oakland. They may look cool in comics and on TV, but in real life they represent a system that fails to address the real issues plaguing the people, one that keeps those people he’s supposed to be “saving” oppressed.

    “He’s wearing the capitalism on his sleeves,” Young says. “If he didn’t have any of that, what would he actually be?”

    Riley uses visual effects to demonstrate the stark difference. Scenes featuring The Hero — including all of “It Requires Trust on My Part,” an episode focused on his out-of-costume existence — are dark and cold. Everything in his universe feels joyless and even lifeless. Riley reserves more whimsical, colorful, and comic book-inspired visuals for Cootie and his friends. The use of practical effects as they fly through the air on their bicycles or Cootie’s aunt and uncle construct a house big enough for him make everything feel somehow both more fantastical and more realistic. The world these young people exist in is depicted as aspirational yet still within reach.

    Activism, Washington tells Primetimer, is about using what you have because that’s all you have. That idea is evident in her character Flora, who, like Cootie, spent her childhood sheltered because of extreme speed. At first, it was something she couldn’t control — her quick speech was unintelligible and her fast movement rendered her nearly invisible. But over time she learned to control it, slowing herself down to interact with the world, harnessing her natural ability for when it’s most needed.

    And unlike The Hero, the way Flora approaches doing good in the world is more ambiguous. When it comes to true activism, she shows it’s possible to exist in the gray area.

    “Doing the wrong things for the right reasons may be worth it if you know why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Washington says. “I think for her, dimensionality is quite important. If you just want something for show, if you just want clout, then that’s maybe not, for her, the best reason, but if you really want to make a change of some sort, then believe it, say it with your chest, if you will, and get out there and get it done.”

    The series acknowledges the long history of activists who may not have been purely “good.” Part of the reason Lafrancine chooses to keep Cootie out of the world for so long is because of the uncertainty of how those who exist in that gray area are perceived. Her character, it’s revealed, was also a prolific activist in her youth, one who followed the blueprint of controversial leaders like Che Guevara. When the time comes, she and Martisse aren’t afraid to equip Cootie with oversized guns and other weapons. It’s in part because she knows how violent the fight can get that she keeps Cootie hidden for so long.

    “I think just the fact that she has been an activist herself and has eyes wide open as to the realities of the society that she’s come up in that she has this weird duality and oxymoronic way of handling this kid,” Ejogo says. “She innately understands that he might well be feared or revered in this world depending on point of view or perspective. It’s so much muddier in that sense, it’s just not clear cut how you’re going to be perceived in the world.”

    But the real message of I’m a Virgo is that no one should or needs to take a stand alone. While leaders undoubtedly emerge, whether because of an unusual ability or a drive to organize others, activist groups are most successful when that responsibility is shared. If I’m a Virgo serves as a cautionary tale against anything, it’s against using one person’s fame or clout as the driving force behind organizing, or following just one person’s opinion about what’s right and what’s wrong. The first step to creating real change is building a community, one where ideas can be shared even if everyone isn’t necessarily on the same page. Once there’s a community who wants to support each other in their everyday lives, the impact follows.

    One person may have been the catalyst for the protests in the subways of New York City just as one person had to take initiative to stand up to The Hero in I’m a Virgo. But it wasn’t just one person who got the attention of the rest of the world, it was a community of activists.

    “It’s hard because I think it feels sometimes like we don’t have a lot of power,” Gray says. “I think right now there’s a lot of power people feel in sharing their opinions and trying to organize something whether it be through social media or the internet or their friend groups. It’s actually the number of people that makes it powerful.”

    I’m a Virgo Season 1 is streaming on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: I’m a Virgo, Amazon Prime Video, Allius Barnes, Boots Riley, Brett Gray, Carmen Ejogo, Jharrel Jerome, Kara Young, Mike Epps, Olivia Washington, Walton Goggins