Boots Riley, the man behind 2018’s provocative Sorry to Bother You, is back with the Prime Video series I’m a Virgo. Like the movie, I’m a Virgo critiques capitalism and advances Latinx representation—Sorry to Bother You starring Tessa Thompson, while I’m a Virgo features two of ours in Jharrel Jerome and Kara Young.
The two play Black folks in Oakland trying to get by in a system rigged against them. I’m a Virgo makes the symbolic literal, the idea of the larger-than-life Black male body made real in the 13-foot Cootie played by Jerome, whereas the little people ignored by the economic system are physically small.
And on it goes.
While that may seem a little on the nose —and the film can be at times— it also allows Riley, who has a history in community organizing, to have some fun.
Take for example the series’ villain, Walton Goggins as “The Hero,” a white billionaire who fancies himself a superhero. Like Ironman, he’s made himself a superhero suit that grants him powers not earned by birth or special ability. And he uses it to fight “crime”—or so he says. The Hero owns a comic book company that sells his narrative, portraying him as the ultimate do-gooder.
It’s enough to initially fool Cootie, whose family has kept him isolated in an effort to keep him, as an unmistakable embodiment of white anxiety, safe. But once Cootie starts venturing out, he realizes The Hero sees property as more valuable than poor Black people.
For example, when community activist Jones (played by Kara Young) organizes a demonstration to stop the eviction of long-term residents, The Hero shows up to stop the protestors. They are breaking the law after all.
Riley makes sure we know that the joke is on The Hero, who is rich and catered to but fundamentally unhappy. He’s a man who’s bought his own fabricated version of the world and his role in it. Riley enjoys poking at that bubble, showing the ridiculousness of that type of wealth and hubris (the show’s release at the same time as the implosion of the OceanGate submarine is deliciously coincidental).
The people of Oakland in contrast —The Hero lives in San Francisco— have superpowers of their own, and innate ones too rather than paid for. Yes, Cootie has superhuman height, but he’s not alone. Not to give too much away, we also meet someone who’s so smart she has to learn to speak more slowly so as to be understood by us regular people, and another person who can explain social structures —capitalism and how it interacts with racism, for example— in such a way that everyone listening not only hears it, but understands.
Cootie earns some notoriety for his exceptional body, but the other two don’t make the news. They don’t have PR firms, nor do they own media channels. Like too many real Black people, their special abilities go unrecognized, however mighty, however much they use them to help the community.
In these ways, I’m a Virgo weaves a smart, fun, surrealist tapestry, its storytelling technique mirroring the values its characters believe in and are fighting for.
It’s also notable that out here in the real world, it’s mostly Black folks who are critiquing capitalism and getting people of color —including Latinx people— on screen. While Eva Longoria’s Flamin’ Hot was a triumph in portraying and valuing Chicano culture, it celebrated capitalism wholeheartedly, which is particularly frustrating for its rare, thoughtful portrayal of a demographic with 33 percent of its population experiencing economic hardships. And as writer and historian Dash Harris explained late last year, Wakanda Forever, with its Black leadership, advanced Indigenous and brown Latinx representation while mestizo productions largely continue to favor light-skinned folks.
I’m a Virgo itself is an anti-capitalistic parable casting Black people as the heroes and rich white folks as the villains. It’s where the Black Panther franchise should —if Marvel will let it— go next.
The heroes in I’m a Virgo may be Latinx or not—the show doesn’t say. But Riley keeps casting Afro-Latinx actors to lead his boundary-pushing productions, and our communities are better off for it.
The first season of I’m a Virgo is out now on Prime Video.
Cristina Escobar is the entertainment reporter for Latino Rebels. She is also the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade