It’s been five years since director Boots Riley’s debut, Sorry to Bother You, dominated the conversation. With a deft hand that has created comedy with sharp social criticism, “Sorry to Bother You” put Riley’s creativity and contributions to Afro-Surrealism on the map. The style he applied to that film proves to be not one, but a jumping-off point, as he reaches back into his toolbox of absurdism and humor in his new Prime Video series, I’m a Virgin .
The show follows Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), a 13-foot-tall, 19-year-old black man growing up in Oakland. Jerome, best known for his dramatic work as Kevin in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Korey Wise in Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us, stretches his legs (quite literally) into new territory shocked with this series.
Cootie is sheltered. His adoptive parents (Mike Epps and Carmen Ejogo) keep him locked up in the house for fear that when people find out, he will be watched, marked and eventually destroyed. They keep him in awe of the titles of the giants who came before him, who now exist only in cemeteries, science laboratories or museums. So when Cootie decides to leave their home against their will, we’re equally skeptical but intrigued as to how the world will receive her. What follows is an absolute mess of a coming-of-age story, packed full of Cali culture, first love, friendship and biting social examination.
The 13-foot-long prank runs the gamut of physical comedy and everyday hilarity. Cootie’s size is achieved through CGI, forced perspectives, and practical doll-sized props, all of which work extremely well in Riley’s world. It’s incredibly comfortable and its fun remains intact even when it’s unreliable. Through titillating sequences, we learn how he eats, uses the bathroom, and eventually, in one of the series’ most memorable moments, has sex.
Jerome embodies Cootie’s physical and social awkwardness with fun sensibility. His naivety makes us look at him like his parents, protectively. Jerome manages Cootie’s clumsiness and curiosity without infantilizing her and, in the funniest moments, shows his comic edge. Whether it’s using superspeed to test the romantic waters with counter worker Flora (Olivia Washington) at the Bing Bang Burger joint, tossing a plate of tacos like it’s nothing, or helping his friends make two-wheeled donuts in the convertible theirs, Jerome’s Cootie is a joy to behold.
The absurdity is the series’ truest commitment, and it works not only for laughs, but also thematic support. A perfectly cast Walton Goggins plays “The Hero”, a millionaire in a super suit á la Iron Man (but in the worst ways). He’s basically a supercop on steroids, flying over Oakland, extolling the importance of law and order and warning black teenagers that “three or more people dressed alike can be prosecuted as a gang.” Goggins is absolutely bonkers in his portrayal, but it’s exactly what the show needs in a funny antagonist.
The Hero character represents the problems with the police, but grows by connecting that point with the world’s obsession with superheroes. Cootie idolizes Hero’s comics, but learns that with real-world implications, Hero is not a defender of the people, but of America’s classist, capitalistic rhetoric. Capitalism is on full display in I’m a Virgin. From tackling the inaccessibility of health care in one particularly damning episode to a line of a Steve Jobs-like cult naming Cootie as their medium, Riley explores the consequences of the institution with varying degrees of gravity.
Even in opaque presentations, the integrity of the comment is not lost. When an agent approaches Cootie and books him as a model in a series of fashion installations where he, a giant black man, terrorizes white mannequins, Cootie knows he’s “perverted.” However, he follows the bag, sacrificing a shred of his dignity for a check.
“I’m a Virgin” has fun with its coming-of-age format while also staying true to the struggles of that era of life, especially for a young man of color. Navigating friendships, first loves, and opening your arms from controlling parents is a universal set of hurdles, but learning how to endure a political landscape that puts a target on your back is a beast all its own. With an incredible roster of talent bringing this world to life, I Am a Virgin is a laugh riot, a pulsating social document and an empathetic character study. Riley’s quick wit, surreal creativity, and nuanced social investigation add this series to his history of absurdist excellence. If another five years is the cost of a third edition, it will be worth the wait.
The entire series was screened for review. “I am a Virgin” premieres today on Prime Video.