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Boots Riley vindicated by positive response to his show about a 13-foot black teenager

Boots Riley | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

“The pitch was a hard one to convince people of,” said director, musician and writer Boots Riley of his forthcoming Amazon series, I’m a Virgo, which had its California premiere at the CGV Theater in San Francisco on Sunday. 

But so far, the show—about a 13-foot-tall giant coming of age in Oakland—has enjoyed a warm reception at festivals, including SXSW and at the SFFILM Festival, which screened four episodes of the series at CGV during the festival’s closing night.

According to Riley, the show’s early success has been vindicating. “It was an ‘I told you so,’” Riley said of the initial lukewarm response to the director’s vision. 

The lovable, larger-than-life Cootie (played by Emmy-award winning actor Jharrel Jerome) makes his way through Oakland after being secreted away by his aunt and uncle caretakers for 19 years. The gentle giant faces all of society’s ills—and also all of its beauties—with fresh and naive eyes, gifting audiences with a heart-searing look at what it means to be alive in today’s world.  

"I'm a Virgo" | Courtesy SFFILM

Crafting an entirely unique, singular hero was part of Riley’s plan to make a statement about society.

“The more specific you get, the more universal it is,” Riley said. “And those specificities we don’t see that much in film and TV.” 

It was curiosity around the unique zaniness of the main character that fueled interest in the show, according to Jerome, who spoke of the eager reception the series received at the SXSW Conference and Festivals in Austin, where there was so much enthusiasm a second “buzz screening” of the show was added to the schedule. 

“It’s striking curiosity,” Jerome said. 

Jharrel Jerome | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Riley is a communist and has a background in activism. He was one of the leaders of the group the Young Comrades and deeply involved in the Occupy Oakland movement. Riley spoke of the series in dialectic terms that echoed his Marxist principles. “Everything is a struggle and a contradiction,” Riley said. “Thesis, antithesis create the synthesis.”

It’s the contradiction, according to Riley, that creates irony and conflict, which he ramps up for his absurdist comedy. 

Riley is also an accomplished and well-known musician—the frontman of Bay Area hip-hop group The Coup—so it’s no surprise Cootie’s awareness of music plays a key role in the series. 

“I’m 19, and I’m hearing bass for the first time,” the giant says in the show. “That’s abuse.” 

Moments of levity as Cootie experiences a bevy of firsts—getting high, getting drunk, falling in love—are interspersed with more serious commentary about our modern society. 

“People are always afraid,” say his caretakers. “And you are a 13-foot Black man.” Riley uses satire as a wormhole to tackle thorny issues of race and class. 

Riley’s feature-length directorial debut came in 2018, with the absurdist, dystopian, alternate timeline comedy Sorry To Bother You, which received wide acclaim.

Like Sorry To Bother You, Riley’s new show is set in Oakland, where Riley grew up. Local shots—such as an aerial view of Grand Lake Theatre and a scene in the Ruby Room bar in Oakland—remind the viewer that this is a local show by a local artist (though the series was mostly filmed in Louisiana). 

The SFFILM Festival opened and closed with two local heroes—Stephen Curry and Riley—offering plenty of hometown love in the nation’s oldest continuously running film festival. Of the 97 programs at the SFFFILM Festival, 15 were by Bay Area creators. 

“The work that I create is based on my experience growing up here,” Riley said. “It’s always a special treat to see how people react.