Last week at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, Oakland filmmaker Boots Riley rolled up to a theater in a pink lowrider and was greeted with a hero’s chant: “Boots! Boots! Boots!”
Best known for his 2018 debut feature film , “Sorry to Bother You,” which also screened at SXSW, Riley was at the festival in support of his new Amazon Prime show, “I’m a Virgo.” Riley has been a fixture in the Bay Area for decades as a rapper with The Coup and the supergroup Street Sweeper Social Club, which also features Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. Both of those projects are rooted in his history of activism, which began during his teenage years at Oakland High School.
The show is set to make its streaming debut in summer 2023, with no official release date announced, but SXSW attendees were treated to a preview of the first four 30-minute episodes. It is scheduled to screen early in the Bay Area as well, on the closing night of SFFILM in late April.
“I love coming to South By, because out of all the film festivals, it’s the drunkest,” said Riley in an introduction to the film. “And a lot more rowdy and fun, the kind of theaters that I grew up going to where we yell at the screen.”
The premise of the show revolves around a 13-foot-tall Black man named Cootie (played by Jharrel Jerome of “Moonlight”) whose parents have kept him hidden from the world — until he befriends a group of young political organizers who introduce him to activism, fast food and thumping hip-hop subwoofers.
“This was a hard one to pitch,” said Riley. “And I think the result is an ‘I told you so.’”
The show has a surreal feel similar to films by Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). There’s an emphasis on practical effects rather than CGI, and Gondry collaborator Maxwell Orgell helmed the production design. Walton Goggins ( “Righteous Gemstones” ) plays an Iron Man-esque vigilante simply known as “The Hero,” but the lines between superhero and supervillain aren’t particularly clear. This is largely inspired by Riley’s childhood obsession with comic books.
“When I look back on it now, it sounds like a psychotic break. I was doing gymnastics, throwing ninja stars… You know, like Daredevil — he doesn’t really have any powers. I could just do that,” he told journalist Hunter Harris in a SXSW panel discussion. “The things that kind of got me off of that at first was [listening to] Prince and then getting involved in political organizations. Because that mindset would have led me to becoming a cop — that’s what superheroes are.”
If the standing ovation after the two hours of television is any indication, Riley’s fans will be thrilled with the mix of fantastic elements and political commentary in “I’m a Virgo.” And although most of the interior filming was done in New Orleans, there are plenty of nods to Bay Area culture, including a sideshow and references to Marshawn Lynch and the Raiders. When asked what it means to set his work in Oakland, Riley responded that it’s important for him to be grounded in the setting to tell an authentic story.
“I want to have enough mastery of my surroundings — what they look like, what they feel like, how they live in these places — to use them as colors in my palette.”
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