UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 17 Fall 23 Library
A.D. Carson & Boots Riley on stage after the screening of I'm a Virgo. 
Virginia Film Festival

Boots Riley's I’m A Virgo Comes to UVA

On April 25, the Virginia Film Festival delivered a small sample of a giant story to a full house of theatregoers at Violet Crown Charlottesville on the Downtown Mall. The special screening of the first 4 episodes of the upcoming Amazon Prime series I’m A Virgo featured a conversation with series creator Boots Riley, moderated by A.D. Carson, assistant professor of Hip Hop and the Global South. 

Riley is perhaps one of today’s leading “slash” talents – a provocative and prolific poet • rapper • songwriter • producer • screenwriter • director • community organizer, and public speaker whose 2018 comedy fantasy sci-fi film Sorry to Bother You premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to strong critical acclaim and won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay and Spirit Award for Best First Feature. 

Riley is the lead vocalist for The Coup and the Street Sweepers Club.

“Boots Riley is one of the most original, dynamic, and thought-provoking artists working today,” said VAFF Senior Programmer Ilya Tovbis. “His unique blend of activism and on-screen storytelling demands to be seen, discussed, and grappled with, and to have the chance to do so with Boots Riley in person is truly special.” 

I’m a Virgo is a funny, moving, and highly accomplished exercise in magical realism that tells the story of a 13-foot-tall black teenager played by Emmy Award-winning actor Jharrel Jerome  (When They See Us, Moonlight) who is suddenly thrust into a world that had no idea what to do with him. Riley employs his long history of social activism, remarkable skills as a storyteller, deft touch with comedy, and passion for the art of filmmaking to create this highly original tale of a literally larger-than-life character who reflects the dangers and challenges faced by young black people in today’s America. 

“I ended up wanting to talk about that age where young black folks find themselves,” Riley said, “and they are not being respected or treated as adults yet. It’s like how people see 17 or 18-year-old Black kids hanging out on the street and think, ‘Oh, they don’t know what do with their lives.’ Meanwhile, you can see a story of a 30-year-old white kid backpacking through Europe and that is considered coming of age.” 

The issue, he said, is that racism has a built-in utility in today’s America, in that it justifies poverty and oppression of people of color and of the white working class. “Instead of just saying that there are a bunch of you who are going to be poor, they tell the working class, ‘Look at these others, they are doing it wrong. You don’t want to be like them.’ 

It just seemed so fun, and I felt like they were just really lucky to be able to come together and talk about film, and art.
Kevin Everson

“This show is about someone dealing with who they think they are verses the way the world thinks they are,” Riley said. “It’s called a coming-of-age story, but I think one of the themes is that if we do it right, we are always coming of age, we are all constantly discovering things about the world. I think it is important to have that context.” 

Riley and his production team took on their giant challenge by “pulling out every trick in the book,” including employing forced perspective and other non-CGI movie magic. The methods ranged from putting Jharrel half as close to the camera as any of his fellow actors to building different sized rooms, to using a wide range of puppets, and relying heavily on the mathematical skills of its VFX supervisor to measure and build platforms. 

 “We did a lot of things that would have been done in the 50’s,” Riley said. They also were fortunate to have the talents of some of the best in the business at their disposal. “Our special effects guy, John McLeod, was one of the people in the Darth Vader suits,” he said. The team also included veterans of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and other classics. 

Riley spent the afternoon before his screening meeting with students in Carson’s and Kevin Everson’s classes. “It made me wish I could be in school for much longer,” Everson, Director of UVA's Studio Art Program, said. “It just seemed so fun, and I felt like they were just really lucky to be able to come together and talk about film, and art. The conversations were so great and so natural right off the bat in a way that made me say, wait has the class even started yet?”

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