Director and activist Boots Riley appeared at the Violet Crown Tuesday for a screening of his upcoming show “I’m a Virgo,” offering students and community members a preview of his newest project and insight into his creative process. The event was presented by the Virginia Film Festival, U.Va. Arts and the Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for the Arts and was free for University students.
“I’m a Virgo” is Riley’s first release since his directorial debut “Sorry to Bother You” in 2018. The show focuses on a 13-foot-tall 19-year-old named Cootie, played by Jharrel Jerome, who is sheltered because of his size until he finds a group of friends and decides he’s prepared to face the outside world. Riley screened the first four episodes Tuesday night, with each episode closing to eager applause from his audience.
The screening was followed by a question and answer session moderated by Asst. Music Prof. A.D. Carson, who opened with a Walidah Imarisha quote from science fiction story collection “Octavia’s Brood.”
“Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction,” Carson quoted. “All organizing is science fiction.”
This link between fiction and ideology characterized Riley’s reflections on his creative process. He touched on issues of class and race and how his background in activism shaped his approach to the coming-of-age narrative at the center of his upcoming series.
“This is about someone dealing with who they think they are versus the way the world thinks they are,” Riley said. “I think a lot of the things that I do, I’m trying to bring people through in the way an organizer does… Whether it's a strike or whether it's a community thing, people are going through experiences that resituate how the world works.”
Beyond his creative processes, Riley also shared specialized techniques used in shooting the show’s 13-foot-tall teenager, including forced perspective and the use of sets of different scales.
“We would build two different size rooms and just have two cameras filming at the same time,” Riley said. “A lot of the things we did could have been done in the 50s, but we also did clean stuff up with VFX.”
He also offered guidance to young people interested in pursuing the arts, placing emphasis on the origin of an artist’s drive to create.
“You gotta think that art is a way to communicate,” Riley said. “What do you care about? What do you want to say to the world? What do you want the world to be? What is your film going to do? … You gotta gotta care about something, and art has to be secondary to that.”
This message of art as communication resonated with audience members, including third-year college student Rian Gonzalez. He studies studio art as a part of his interdisciplinary major, and noted his appreciation for Riley’s advice.
“He said, the idea’s gotta matter first, and it's also not just the idea, but what the idea spurs,” Gonzalez said. “That’s good to think about in regards to my own practice.”
Kevin Everson, professor of art and director of the studio art program, was also in the audience Tuesday night. He commented on the value of events like this one in motivating creative students.
”It's good for students to see artists who do things that aren't mainstream,” Everson said. “They used to bring people in when I was an undergraduate, and you felt like you weren't alone, you know? You have the okay to make something that's kind of ill and off the chain a little bit.”
“I’m a Virgo” will be available on Prime Video. The show has not yet set an official release date.