Update: I’m a Virgo is streaming now on Prime Video.

The SFFilm festival closed out this past Sunday, April 23, with a screening of the first four episodes of Boots Riley’s Amazon Original series I’m A Virgo. The avant-garde TV show follows the life of a 13-foot young Black man named Cootie (played by Emmy-award-winning actor Jharrel Jerome) as he navigates life in Oakland while experiencing the intricacies of friendship, love, capitalism, and gentrification. The show explores how capitalism finds and exploits individual uniqueness and then discards it once it’s no longer profitable.

“I’m not taking for granted that people will like it, but I think people will,” Riley told The Oaklandside ahead of the Sunday screening. “I’m excited. It’s going to be fun.”

SFFILM 2023: I'm A Virgo red carpet 8
Director Boots Riley and actor-producer Jharrell Jerome on the red carpet for the closing night of the SFFILM Festival and the screening of Riley’s Amazon series “I’m A Virgo” in San Francisco. Credit: Amir Aziz

The show wowed audiences when it premiered last month at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Back at home for its San Francisco premiere, the Bay Area audience was equally thrilled

Riley began writing the concept for this and other scripts in 2019, and the next year when the pandemic started, he had more time to devote to his ideas. “I set a morning ritual because I was stuck in the house,” he said. “And it’s proven pretty effective.”

The series, streaming now on Prime Video, was mostly filmed in Louisiana, with exterior shots filmed in Oakland, including aerial views of the Grand Lake Theater, downtown Oakland, and even NYC Buffet, a highly recognizable East Oakland restaurant on 42nd Avenue and International Boulevard. The Ruby Room, a longtime bar on 14th Street, also makes an appearance. Tune-Yards provided the musical score. 

“One part that can sound very altruistic is that I want to help the art scene here. I want people to be able to access the means to make their art,” Riley told the audience during the post-screening Q&A in San Francisco. “It’s important to me, but it’s also very selfish. This is where I’m from, and I’m a better artist when I’m here.”

A still from the upcoming Amazon series ‘I’m a Virgo.” Credit: courtesy of Amazon Studios

One issue preventing more productions to film locally, Riley told the Oaklandside, is the high cost of living in the Bay Area. “If you want to make it easier to do music or film, then rent has to be cheaper,” he said. 

Oakland’s population increased by about 50,000 people between 2010 and 2020 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but housing production grew at a much slower pace, contributing to a housing shortage in the city. Over the same 10-year period, the number of vacant housing units in Oakland plummeted from a little over 15,000 to about 10,500. 

Riley’s embrace of Marxist ideology plays throughout the show, much like the themes in his 2018 feature film debut, Sorry to Bother You. In one of the episodes, a friend of Cootie, Jones (played by Kara Young), tries to recruit him to help with an eviction defense action for tenants in Fruitvale during a rent strike. The scene is fictional but not far-fetched; it echoes a real scenario that played out in 2021 when 21 tenants organized and sued their landlord over habitability issues at their apartment complex in Fruitvale. 

Evictions and how they affect low-income residents in Oakland are things that Riley has been paying attention to. On April 19, the Oakland City Council voted to end its eviction moratorium on July 15 while also adopting new tenant protections. 

“The idea of phasing out the eviction moratorium, at all, is something I’m not down with,” he said. “It all gets put on the renters and on poor people in general. Every question comes down to: How are poor people going to handle it?” 

Emmy-award-winning actor Jharrel Jerome stars as “Cootie,” a 13-foot-tall teenager. Credit: courtesy of Amazon Studios

Even though Riley wasn’t able to film in Oakland as much as he would have liked due to the high cost and lack of tax incentives for filmmakers, he doesn’t believe the city should model itself after other more thriving filmmaking cities. 

The state of Louisiana, where his show was filmed, offers a 25% tax credit on production costs for qualified in-state production expenditures, according to the state’s motion picture production program. Still, said Riley, it isn’t nearly enough, especially considering the sizeable tax breaks the state affords to other industries, including Big Oil. For example, in a 2017 report, Exxon Mobile was found to have avoided paying nearly $700 million in property taxes for 20 years due to exemptions—money that would have been used to pay for schools, police, parks, and other municipal services in Baton Rouge.

“It’s a rip-off to the state of Louisiana,” he said. “I didn’t realize what was happening until I was there.” Oil companies in the state are also yet to pay their fair share for oil spills and other pollution incidents, which have exposed the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

“You think we have problems with potholes here in Oakland? You go to Louisiana, and your car can get stuck in a pothole. You can fall into a pothole and have to climb out,” he said. “So I wouldn’t want to use a model like that.”

Riley would like to see the city of Oakland provide filmmakers with rebates for using city services and city-owned places, especially empty spaces. “A lot of these buildings are just sitting there in the same way that housing is sitting empty,” he said. 

Even though it currently might not make financial sense to film locally, he believes that it is worth it.

“As an artist, I want to tell our stories. And even if I weren’t from here, I’d want to be filming in places that feel new and have different kinds of terrains, landscapes, and people,” he said. “The Bay Area is for that.”

I’m a Virgo premieres later this summer on Amazon Prime Video

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.