In 2019, Jharrel Jerome won an Emmy for his passionate depiction of Korey Wise in “When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s four-part limited series chronicling the injustices inflicted upon the Central Park Five. Wise was the eldest of the wrongfully convicted friends and, at 16, the only one to serve his full sentence in a prison built for adults. DuVernay’s piece is a torrid evisceration of how the American criminal justice system treats young Black men, from the cops that profiled, arrested, and abused the boys to the prosecutor and public who were all too eager to convict. Among the five kids, Jerome is the only actor to play his role from beginning to end — from 1989 through 2014 — and his raw, emotional transformation helps audiences appreciate what was taken from Wise, all because he was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong skin.
Jerome likely won’t win an Emmy for playing Cootie, a 13-foot-tall teenager, in Boots Riley’s Amazon Prime Video series “I’m a Virgo.” The seven-part surrealist parable is pretty out there, as far as the TV Academy is concerned, and its buoyant absurdities are likely too bizarre for what boils down to a popularity contest. Still, Cootie and Korey have plenty in common, as do the series that house them. Riley’s first TV show (and first project since his 2018 directorial debut “Sorry To Bother You”) is about what it’s like to be young and Black in America, told from the perspective of someone who’s suddenly thrust into into the spotlight and has to quickly learn how to survive.
But where DuVernay favored scorched-earth realism to jolt audiences into action, Riley takes a gentler tack. “I’m a Virgo” is a treat, and even when its comedy veers into darkness, the first four episodes find joy through each character, their stories, and Riley’s exuberance in telling them.
Meet Cootie. A large boy since birth, Jerome’s character is raised by his Aunt Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo) and Uncle Martisse (Mike Epps), who hide him from the outside world out of fear for his safety. Soon, their adult-sized dancing baby grows into a 13-foot-tall teenager. Cootie has to hunch just to fit inside each room. He can barely squeeze through doorways and does major structural damage as easily as most kids drop their silverware. Martisse gets so exhausted from the repairs, he paints their living room two different colors, restricting Cootie to his own half with a massive bean-bag chair and fewer breakables.
Riley captures it all with a beguiling blend of props and sets, close-ups, and combined shots. Images don’t always look real, per se, but they fit the fantastical story and enhance our connection to it. “I’m a Virgo” is more of a comedy than many of the genre hybrids you hear about. It’s not above answering the base questions associated with raising a literal giant — how does he use the toilet? you’ll find out! — and once he reaches legal adulthood, there’s plenty of drinking, partying, and one wild (yet sweet) sex scene.
Still, Cootie is the definition of a gentle giant. Growing up in a house that’s too small for him requires acting with constant caution; he moves carefully and speaks softly. His physical restrictions lead to certain developmental issues — in a testament to Jerome’s all-in performance, Cootie eats exactly like someone who’s always dined alone — but save for his size, Cootie remains readily identifiable as an average teenager. By the time he reaches across the tall bushes of his family’s Oakland backyard, you’re as worried as his aunt and uncle about how hard the outside world will smack back.
Through four episodes, though, the emotion most often elicited is joy. Cootie’s first friend group is cool, their ideas considerate, and their adventures highly amusing. (Their first spin around the block is a sight to behold, and each subsequent car ride builds on that memory.) His first relationship is tender and two-sided, as Flora (Olivia Washington) proves an exciting equal to the giant dude who asks her out at work. It’s clear that if left to his own devices, Cootie would be just fine. It’s commercialism that corrupts Cootie and the culture that comes for him.
Courtesy of Prime Video
As a kid, Cootie is given a comic book called “The Hero” written and created by “entrepreneur, philanthropist, and hero” Jay Whittle (Walton Goggins, who you already know nails this role). Soon, Jay becomes the superhero he put on the page, and Cootie’s idol worship shifts from his imagination to reality. Having not experienced anything outside his childhood home, he buys in to The Hero’s mantra about law-abiding citizens. “People should feel protected, and the law protects people,” Jay says during a TV interview Cootie sees. “The law leads to order, and order is how we make sure everyone is safe.” It’s only later — when we see The Hero floating above Oakland, suspended from what looks like a repurposed drone and dressed in gleaming white armor — that we see his vision of justice in action: “Stop,” he shouts from the skies, looking down on a peaceful parking lot party. “In California, more than three people gathered together wearing similar clothes can be prosecuted as a gang.”
The Hero and the discriminatory laws he enforces are exactly what Cootie’s aunt and uncle are worried about. “People are always afraid, and you’re a 13-foot-tall Black man,” Lafrancine says. “They fear you.” Even when Cootie’s first-hand experiences are overwhelmingly lovely, the edges are shaded in darkness, and Riley keeps his central metaphor about growing up Black in America as a dramatic constant.
“I’m a Virgo” often feels like an elongated movie, intermittently chopped into episodic chunks. (With episodes hovering around the half-hour mark, its runtime should end up just over the three-hour mark.) It’s not subtle, which can be part of its charm, while still feeling redundant at times.
But just when you think maybe the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, Uncle Matisse walks to the closet, pulls back the door, and unveils a laser rifle the size of an elephant gun. “We ready,” he says, and all your brain tells you is: “Hell yeah.”
“I’m a Virgo” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Festival. Amazon Prime Video will release the seven-episode series this summer.