Afro-surrealism has been on Hollywood’s radar for some time now. From Donald Glover’s groundbreaking series “Atlanta” to Terence Nance’s thought-provoking “Random Acts of Flyness” and Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed films “Get Out” and “Nope,” this formerly niche genre seems to be thriving in mainstream entertainment.
Writer, producer and musician Boots Riley, whose 2018 film “Sorry to Bother You” catapulted him to prominence as a filmmaker, returns with his latest project: “I’m A Virgo” on Prime Video. This highly anticipated series solidifies his position among the pioneers of the Afro-surrealist genre.
Afrofuturism and Afro-surrealism, often seen as interchangeable, are different. Where Afrofuturism blends the African diaspora’s art, science and music to speculate on the future, Afro-surrealism is about the now. Why romanticize a dystopian future when so many working-class Black and brown bodies live in oppressive spaces at this moment?
Executive Produced by Riley and Tze Chun (“Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai”), “I’m A Virgo” first appears to be an absurdist comedy about a teenage giant coming of age in an alternate reality in Oakland, California. The series stars Emmy-Award Winning actor Jharrel Jerome (“When They See Us,” “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”) as Cootie, a 13-foot-tall 19-year-old who, after being sequestered by his guardians for most of his life, ventures out to see the world for the first time.
Raised on a steady diet of commercials, comics and pop culture, Cootie awkwardly manages to find friends, a job and even love. As the gentle giant stumbles through this ever expanding universe, he realizes the outside world is more sinister than it appears. But don’t let the heavy themes fool you, “I’m A Virgo” is a comedy full of absolutely bonkers moments.
It is also one of the best shows you’ll watch this summer.
When we first meet Cootie as a newborn, he’s the size of a 12-year-old as his Aunt Lafrancine, (Carmen Ejogo), struggles to carry him out of the hospital. We see Lafrancince and her husband Martisse (Omar Epps) raise Cootie as best they can via montage. Martisse is constantly repairing walls and doors as Cootie breaks through them, unaware of his size or strength. And when the giant hits his growth spurt, the couple builds a separate home for him in the backyard. Eventually his curiosity reaches beyond the canopy covered space and he meets his friends Felix (Brett Gray), Jones (Kara Young), and Scat (Allius Barnes) — who take him joyriding and show him the world he has been missing.
Although rumors of a mysterious giant make the evening news, no one in the neighborhood (besides Cootie’s parents) seem concerned, possibly because an actual giant isn’t the only oddity in Oakland. His neighbor has a house on mechanical stilts that cranks up about ten stories high sometimes. A local burger joint employee Flora (Olivia Washington) shifts between dimensions if she gets distracted. Jones, the activist in their crew, can psionically “push” her agenda into other people’s consciousness like a Marxist Emma Frost.
Cootie does, however, catch the attention of The Hero. He is played hilariously by Walter Goggins, who chews the scenery as a narcissistic vigilante in a jet pack. By day, The Hero is Jay Whittle, a billionaire comic book creator and tech guru whose ego is so huge he makes his San Francisco high-rise office building move up and down around him rather than bothering to take the elevator. By night, he flies around Oakland, cosplaying as the character he created, “policing” citizens and publishing stories of his exploits for profit.
If this all sounds pointedly political, you would be right. The entire purpose of Afro-surrealism is to reveal the structures that uphold societal norms in order for them to be knocked down.
Raised by activists in Oakland, creator Boots Riley is also a musician, rapper and self-proclaimed communist who, like most creatives, feeds his experiences into his art. From the soundtrack, featuring Oakland musicians Tune-Yards, Jones’ social justice organizing and The Hero’s propaganda-filled comics, Riley’s DNA emanates from all of the characters in “I’m A Virgo.” And there are a lot of them.
There are almost as many cameos on this show as political statements. Elijah Wood appears as a polite executioner in training, and Danny Glover voices an animated meteorologist prone to existential rants. Even the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek pops up as a talking demon baby.
And this show should be awarded simply for bringing TV legend Morgan Fairchild out of retirement.
Distortion of reality and ambiguity are common features of Afro-surrealism, but Riley makes it work through pacing and tempo. Just before things get too visually overwhelming, we cut back to a car ride, comic book shop, or simply a window to get our bearings before he flings us head first out of it again.
Riley is also clearly a fan of Japanese anime and Western animation. A melody from “Akira” outlines Flora’s music cue when she uses her powers. Trippy images reminiscent of Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” pop up throughout the episodes. Even The Hero’s suit looks right out of an episode of “Ultraman.” The in-world show “Parking Tickets,” which appears on various screens throughout the series, is a quirky mashup of “Rick and Morty” and “Family Guy”.
Stand out performances from the main cast keep the seven-episode series from going off the rails. Jerome is incredible, displaying innocence and strength as Cootie’s concept of the universe slowly erodes. Washington is riveting as Flora, whose character exists simultaneously in parallel dimensions, actively slowing herself down to be heard.
They’re both metaphors, of course, Cootie, a large Black boy, regarded as a monster to the outside world; and Flora, the awkward Black girl who alters her true self to be accepted. Her adorably awkward relationship with Cootie is one of the more grounding aspects of the show. Riley could easily create another series about this pair, or any of the characters featured in this series. Here’s hoping we’ll get Season 2 of the adventures of the entire oddball team.
Riley’s “I’m A Virgo” messaging might be messy, but it does shed light on issues such as police brutality, healthcare disparities, unfair wages and the inherent shortcomings of capitalism in safeguarding the working class. However, what makes you root for this show is not merely its political commentary or mind-bending imagery. Rather, it is Cootie’s innocent positivity, the genuine acceptance of his friends, and the stark realization that some aspects of our world are far more terrifying than a towering, 13-foot-tall black man.
“I’m a Virgo” premieres Friday, June 23, on Prime Video.