The Psychic Theater of Boots Riley

Psychic Theater

Boots Riley’s I’m a Virgo.


All art is propaganda,” says Walton Goggins in I’m a Virgo, Boots Riley’s new Amazon Prime Video series. Goggins plays the show’s villain, a billionaire comic book mogul named Jay Whittle, aka The Hero, who uses his money and tech to fund a one-man war for law and order. He’s Batman if Batman published DC Comics and used his empire to popularize and vindicate his own vigilante efforts. For him, art is propaganda, because it changes how people perceive the world and therefore how they move within it.

In a series about a young man of superhuman size, a young woman with superhuman speed, and a tenant organizer who confronts rapacious, profit-driven companies with superhuman persuasiveness, The Hero represents a defense of the status quo. But he is a way for Riley to critique the idea of superheroes, and one suspects he also serves as a mouthpiece for Riley’s thoughts about how art can be put to use: If art is, in one way or another, political, then the question is whether it is in the service of those in power or those outside it.

Ever since his start in the 1990s with the hip-hop group the Coup, Riley has been explicitly political in his art. It’s not hard to find the politics in the Coup’s first album, Kill Your Landlord, just as it’s not hard to find the politics in Riley’s first feature film, Sorry to Bother You, a satirical, surrealistic investigation into racial performance, labor relations, and corporate culture. I’m a Virgo—set in an Oakland plagued by rolling blackouts, health care systems focused on profit rather than care, and police trying to violently stamp out protests—doesn’t shy away from politics either. And with its absurdist, often darkly funny view of the media, first love, and the contradictions of contemporary Black life, the series often succeeds as a work of art. But when one character’s superpower turns out to be the ability to give a lecture on the effects of capitalism’s drive for endless profit, the show’s efforts to turn art into propaganda and propaganda into art overwhelm the narrative.

On its surface, I’m a Virgo is a superhero origin story. Full of larger-than-life figures, its protagonist, Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), who stands 13 feet tall, is perhaps the largest of them all. Cootie has been sheltered his entire life. His normal-size parents have built a special house for him in their backyard and lined the property with hedges tall enough to keep him hidden. Cootie’s parents mean well: They make him read 10 hours a day and exercise three hours a day to prepare him for what will happen when his existence is revealed. But his life is also stifling. For 19 years, his sole connection to the world has been through comic books and trash TV. When we meet him, he parrots the vacuous phrases he hears on TV; he idolizes The Hero and his comic book adventures and repeats his catchphrase (“Get your mind right, half-wits!”); and he fantasizes about eating at the local Bing-Bang Burgers, a fast-food chain whose commercials practically hypnotize Cootie.

Of course, we wouldn’t have much of a story if Cootie stayed at home, so he soon ventures out into the city. What follows from there often feels like a typical fish-out-of-water tale—Cootie enters the world with wide-eyed naivete. But with his new friends Felix, Scat, and Jones, he starts to figure things out. He does doughnuts in a parking lot. He tries (and fails) to talk to a young woman at a club. He discovers the pulse of a subwoofer. He gets into a fight without meaning to and knocks down four guys with a single slap. He soon goes viral, which worries his parents, but it also feels liberating to be out of hiding.

Cootie finds love as well. At Bing-Bang Burgers, he meets Flora (Olivia Washington), who smiles up at him. That’s a first. But she’s a first in another way: She’s an outcast like him. Flora may have a normal person’s height, but she moves with superspeed, assembling dozens of burgers in seconds. Flora knows what it’s like to be out of place: Because of her speed, she lives on a completely different scale of time.

Through his new friends, Cootie also discovers politics. Scat (Allius Barnes) suffers a traumatic injury in a biking accident, but when he goes to a private hospital, he’s turned away because he doesn’t have insurance and subsequently dies. Jones (Kara Young) is a tenant organizer and, like Riley, a self-proclaimed communist. After Scat’s death, she organizes a protest. Jones, it turns out, also has a superpower: She delivers an enthralling speech that takes the crowd through a wide-ranging Marxist analysis of how the demand for constant profits leads to a spiral of rising prices and falling wages. The speech is didactic, but it energizes the protesters, and for good reason. In Riley’s hands, it becomes an opportunity to create a lavish virtual space: Black curtains unfurl to reveal a stage on which the lecture is illustrated with protean three-dimensional infographics. Jones’s soapbox speech, her “psychic theater,” astonishes and galvanizes Cootie.

The protest is also Cootie’s first physical encounter with The Hero, who arrives eager to restore law and order in the face of an unruly throng. As Cootie paints Scat’s name in giant letters on the wall of a building, The Hero flies up behind the giant and knocks him out. Officially branded as a threat, Cootie is placed under house arrest for 120 days.

To while away the time, Cootie again turns to the TV and The Hero’s comic books. His mother can’t believe he’s still reading them, but Cootie insists he can tell the difference between “the ideal of what a hero should be” and what The Hero actually is. Art and politics, for Cootie, should be separate. But are they? Watching TV after his run-in with The Hero, Cootie sees himself being demonized: The screen is full of videos of police officers training to fight giants like himself, crime shows with outsize predators, “commercials for household security systems to make ‘giant thugs flee.’” Cootie tries to dismiss it all, but then he gets the latest issue of The Hero. On its cover is a caricature of Cootie in chains.

Realizing that society has declared him a threat to law and order, Cootie decides to be a threat to the order of an unjust society. To eke out as much profit as possible, the electric company in this fictional Oakland has implemented a series of rolling blackouts, so Cootie hatches a plan to destroy the private utility’s regulators and restore the power (literally!) to the people. Jones tries to dissuade him, explaining that it would be better to get the people to join together and dictate their terms through a general strike. But Cootie goes ahead anyway.

The plan flops and The Hero catches up with Cootie, who, because of his size, snatches the billionaire out of the air. Seemingly defeated, The Hero offers Cootie the chance to team up with him and become a “hero” too. While Cootie contemplates the offer, The Hero turns the tables, binding him in chains. Jones arrives and this time gives a speech explaining how capitalism leads to poverty, illegal businesses, and crime. As a tool upholding capitalism, The Hero causes the very crime he claims to fight. The speech convinces The Hero—or at least Jones’s superpower stuns him enough that he flees the scene.

In the background, the general strike is gaining momentum. Sorry to Bother You culminated with a strike too, but while Riley’s film rises on a tide of escalating absurdity—militant strikebreakers, a game show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, and, of course, horse people—I’m a Virgo closes with a failed superhero plan and a sermonic and earnest appeal. The Hero’s propaganda, his comic books and reactionary crusade, fail in the face of Jones’s psychic theater. Riley gives her the last word, but without much room for refutation: Jones’s speeches are a direct address to the audience, a shortcut to spell out the point of the series, and a fantasy about what the right information could do, if only we would sit down and listen. But there’s something unsatisfying about such an ending. Riley seems aware of it too: Early in the final episode, Jones talks to her lover, Maya, who feels ignored and wants to discuss the terms of their relationship. Jones gets ready to deliver one of her superpower speeches, but Maya stops her, saying, “You win the arguments, and we both lose.” This might be true of I’m a Virgo as well. Riley gives his message a clear and unambiguous victory, but in the process, something is lost.

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