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Boots Riley unpacks his series 'I'm a Virgo' and parallels to the writers strike

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There is a world where flying businessmen, lightning-fast chefs and giants coexist, a world where urban legends in the Bay Area make the local news.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I'M A VIRGO")

MARISSA CHANEL HAMPTON: (As character) Many claimed it was a hoax. There's a giant man in Oakland with a penchant for sideshows, dancing, burgers and brawls.

SUMMERS: It's a world created by writer, director, activist and hip-hop artist Boots Riley in the new Prime Video series "I'm A Virgo." Riley says his initial idea for this story started with one premise.

BOOTS RILEY: One of the main facets of the show itself is, you know, a 13-foot-tall Black man. And, matter of fact, that's all I had at first as a concept.

SUMMERS: That concept became the main character, played by Jharrel Jerome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I'M A VIRGO")

JHARREL JEROME: (As Cootie) I'm Cootie. Well, it's Kuti, but you can call me Cootie.

SUMMERS: Cootie's aunt and uncle raise him, trying to protect him from the outside world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I'M A VIRGO")

MIKE EPPS: (As Martisse) Now, you ain't ready. And you're going to go out there and get yourself killed and put on display.

SUMMERS: But Cootie manages to make friends, who break through the literal and figurative barriers his family put up to protect him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I'M A VIRGO")

JEROME: (As Cootie) You know, as a young Black man, if you walk down the street and the police see that you don't have a job, they send you directly to jail. I know all about it.

(LAUGHTER)

BRETT GRAY: (As Felix) Bro, that's not exactly how it is. Like...

KARA YOUNG: (As Jones) Well, no, I mean, metaphorically, that's how it goes.

SUMMERS: Like Boots Riley's 2018 movie, "Sorry To Bother You," reflections on capitalism are a big part of this show. And with the writer's strike ongoing, those reflections feel extra timely. Boots Riley and I talked about all of that, but we started with the world that the characters in "I'm A Virgo" occupy.

RILEY: It's a world much like our own. And it's also not like our own because what I do is I look for the contradictions in life, and I ramp them up to the point of absurdity because there's something shared in that contradiction that really works for storytelling.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about Cootie's love interest. Her name is Flora, and she's played by Olivia Washington. And in the show, she has this incredible ability to move and think at super speed. Yet it's very clear that the world has treated her from birth as if that's a disability.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I'M A VIRGO")

JEROME: (As Cootie) So every second, you're consciously slowing.

OLIVIA WASHINGTON: (As Flora) Yeah. I change my words and my walk. Yeah. It's like translating.

SUMMERS: Can you just tell us more about that character and how she came to be?

RILEY: Yeah. Flora - she experiences life as if it's so slow that it's not moving. And we get to see a bit about how that development happened for her. And this show is about connection. But for it to be about connection, it's also about loneliness, right? And she has that in common with our main character. And, you know, you really fall in love with all of these characters, but you end up falling in love with Cootie and Flora and rooting for that connection.

SUMMERS: There's also this really interesting strain in the show that is a critique on policing, represented by this business mogul known as The Hero, who uses his wealth to patrol the city in this high-tech suit, and he lionizes himself in the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I'M A VIRGO")

WALTON GOGGINS: (As The Hero) People should feel protected. The law protects people. The law leads to order.

SUMMERS: I'm curious if you can tell us a bit about this character, who's played by Walton Goggins. And I'm also curious - is the critique here about policing or how we view superheroes or maybe both?

RILEY: It's about all of that, and it's also - it's about the idea of crime itself, right? And I don't want to give too much about - away about the end, but what superhero shows and what cop shows do is not only promote this idea of the police being the good guys. That's - it's also to sell us this idea that poverty and crime come from bad choices of the impoverished. And what this show points out is that poverty and crime are built into capitalism in the sense that we don't have any kind of safety net, that therefore, illegal business is also built into it.

SUMMERS: I also noticed that Cootie is kind of like you. He lives in Oakland, and he was a big fan of comic books as a kid. How much of yourself did you write into this character?

RILEY: Oh, you know, how I do it is all the characters are me, basically. That's how I can put humanity into it. I never have characters acting in a way that I think someone else would act. But particularly with Cootie, a lot of things - you know, I was obsessed with comic books at the age of 12 to the point where I was, like, doing gymnastics classes, learning how to throw ninja stars, doing nunchucks with this idea that maybe I could be a superhero. It was almost like, maybe, a psychotic break. I don't know. And luckily, I veered off from that path when I discovered Prince, right? And then I got involved in community organizing. But had I stayed on that path - probably would have made me become a cop or something like that.

SUMMERS: OK, so from superheroes and loving comics and throwing stars to Prince. Help me understand that turn a little bit. What changed?

RILEY: Oh, I mean, like I said, I - you know, I discovered Prince and wanted to become a musician. And I think all of those things - you know, what people are seeing in comic books and what people see when they see stars and they kind of - on TV and want to be it, it's like - we're all told that we are insignificant as a way to convince us that nothing can be changed in the world, right? And they don't tell us that there is a way that we can shape the world around us by understanding that, in collectively withholding our labor, we can be a major player in this system around us. And we talk about that in the show, and it's also what's going on right now. Writers of TV and film are on strike and showing the world that, hey; this is where your power can come because it's not only a strike over wages, which - it is that. It's not only a strike over work conditions, but it's a strike about the very creation of culture. And the way to be connected to the world around us isn't just seeing it. It's having some say in it.

SUMMERS: Right. And we should just point out here that the studios maintain that income for writers is not as low as WGA members say and that their last offer did increase pay. But I'm curious, from your perspective, what do people not understand about the stakes of this situation?

RILEY: Well, let's say this. The WGA strike is one of the most visible strikes. And so what's at stake here is if the WGA wins, it's going to be very inspiring. If the WGA loses, it'll be used to point and say, hey. Look. Strikes don't work. And so this is really - this is at stake, you know, for the whole working class. That's what's at stake.

SUMMERS: That was filmmaker, activist and musician Boots Riley. Thank you so much for joining us today.

RILEY: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: "I'm A Virgo" is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

(SOUNDBITE OF GNARLS BARKLEY SONG, "CRAZY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.