Over twenty years ago, The Matrix prompted the world with a philosophical twist on the choose-your-own-adventure game. “You take the blue pill, your story ends,” Laurence Fishburne says as Morpheus, the enigmatic leader of a shadowy resistance movement determined to save the planet from a network of intelligent machines that have turned the majority of the earth’s denizens into human batteries. “You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Next month, the final chapter of The Matrix is arriving in select theaters and on HBO Max, giving protagonist Neo and his gang of cyberpunk misfits one last chance to vanquish the secret agents—and the simulated reality they have created to keep people from realizing what is going on.
Last year, director Lilly Wachowski explained to Netflix that the film’s science-fiction storyline was an allegory about transgender identity and a “desire for transformation.” (She and her sister Lana Wachowski both came out as trans after the film’s 1999 release). But one of the things that makes The Matrix so special is that there is no one way to interpret it. Much has been made of the film’s Christian undertones, and of course, it’s easy to read it as foreshadowing many of the discussions we’re having right now about technology, from the perils of artificial intelligence to the whole insanity around the metaverse.
As a writer who writes about race, though, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the film’s most compelling and foundational characters were Black—even without a leading character in Will Smith, who famously turned down the role of Neo. Morpheus and the Oracle (Gloria Foster), a woman who uses her clairvoyant powers to help the insurgency, aren’t just integral to the plot; both intellectually and in the tactical sense, they’re characters who hold the keys to dismantling an oppressive system, which suggested to me that race was another through-line worth unpacking in the film. After all, the predicament humanity is up against could easily be seen as a metaphor for slavery.
What would the message of The Matrix be if we viewed it as a parable about Black identity? Does race actually play a role in the film, even if it never mentions it explicitly? If the film’s Black characters are leading the charge to free humanity from bondage and usher in a better world, could it be that the Matrix is a work of afrofuturism? Ahead of watching Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity) reprise their roles in The Matrix: Resurrection, I revisited the original and took an inventory of its Black characters to find out.
Who are the Black people?
We first meet Morpheus when Thomas Anderson, Neo’s alter ego in the Matrix, receives an unexpected visit from a group of white men in ominous dark sunglasses at his corporate job; his phone rings, and a disembodied Morpheus proceeds to advise him on how to flee the building and escape the Agents, whose job is to literally “assimilate” people. As Anderson darts between cubicles and heads for a window, Morpheus somehow knows exactly what Anderson should do before he does it—but we don’t know why that is, or why he seems to view Anderson as someone worth protecting.
There is quite a bit of anticipation leading up to the moment, about 25 minutes into the film, when we finally see Morpheus, and the film doesn’t give us any reason to believe he would be Black (although Fisburne’s stoic and distinctive tenor leaves little to the imagination). Still, when Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) catches Anderson and describes Morpheus as a “terrorist” and “the most dangerous man alive,” it’s hard not to hear a little dog whistling—at least in retrospect.
When we finally meet the man himself, we learn what we expected all along: Morpheus is an omniscient, god-like figure in this universe. There isn’t much he doesn’t know, and what he does know he relays in parables, which always leave room for Neo to make his own decisions. “You’ve felt it your entire life—that there’s something wrong with the world,” he tells his new protégé. “You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
His description of an evil so insidious that it is both all around us and impossible to pin down applies just as easily to the fictional universe of the Matrix as it does to the “isms” that haunt our everyday lives: racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, heterosexism. When Neo asks what the truth is, he learns that he’s been a slave his whole life. “You were born into bondage—born into a prison which you cannot smell or taste or touch,” Morpheus tells him “A prison for your mind.”
While some academics have painted Neo as a traditional white savior, that reading undermines Morpheus’s role as one of the chief architects of the opposition movement. True, he’s decided that Neo holds the power to unlock a better world, one that allows us to escape the way we’ve been “programmed”—but who better to do that than a person who looks like Keanu Reeves, a man who reaps the benefits of being a white-passing male? As James Baldwin once wrote in a 1962 piece for the New Yorker, “The power of the white world is threatened whenever a Black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.” That sounds a lot like the plot of The Matrix to me.
The Matrix is similar to The Wizard of Oz in the sense that viewers are left waiting for the grand reveal of the Oracle, another superhuman figure who everyone seems to speak of in hushed and reverent tones. When we finally do meet her, an hour into the film, she plays to our surprise: “Not quite what you were expecting, right?” Instead of the Wachowskis making the Oracle another gun-toting vigilante, like the rest of the cast, she has a grandmotherly quality. She bakes cookies for the children who come visit her at her apartment, and is filled with wisdom and wit.
Though she looks just like an ordinary woman hanging out in her own kitchen, Neo’s fate rests in her hands. He cannot be The One without her confirmation. “You’ve got the gift,” she says. “But it looks like you’re waiting for something—your next life, maybe. Who knows?” Before Neo leaves, she drops another revelation in his lap: By the end of their fight with the Agents he will have to choose between his life or Morpheus’. “One of you is going to die,” she says.“Which one, will be up to you.”
Foster only receives five minutes of screentime, but there is no The Matrix without the Oracle: The choice she leaves him ends being the catalyst he needs to come to terms with the person he wants to be. And while casting the Oracle’s as a Black woman may just be a coincidence, she’s certainly been tasked with cleaning up messes she didn’t create, like so many real-life Black women.
At first glance, Tank seems like a minor character. He introduces himself to Neo as a computer programmer on Morpheus’ ship, the Nebuchadnezzar. But he’s not just any computer programmer; he is responsible for creating the training programs Neo will need to undergo as he prepares for battle against the Agents. When Neo notices that Tank’s body doesn’t have any holes (most humans in The Matrix have been hooked up to a system that harvests their body for energy), Tank laughs and explains that he and his brother Dozer are “100 percent pure homegrown, old-fashioned human.” They are the only people on the ship who haven’t experienced a past life. By casting two Black actors as symbols of a free civilization, a direct opposition to our history in this country, The Matrix is writing a different future for us all.
Does it pass the Corry Test?
Similar to my analysis of the Black characters in Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers, I decided to apply my own version of the Bechdel Test to The Matrix: Are there two or more Black characters? Do the Black characters interact without white characters present? Does a Black character talk to a white character about something other than race?
Unfortunately, The Matrix only narrowly passes the Bechdel test, and it doesn’t exactly pass my test either. Yes, there are two or more Black characters, but none of them engage with each other without Trinity or Neo present. Ultimately, their main function in the plot is to help Neo along his hero’s journey—and while they do technically talk about issues other than race, nobody in the movie ever explicitly talks about race, so that one is kind of a moot point.
Even though The Matrix doesn’t pass my criteria for Black representation on-screen, to me, the Black characters are the true heroes of the franchise. Cultural critic Mark Dery once described afrofuturism as “The positioning of oneself, literally, as a stranger in strange land.” Characters like Morpheus, the Oracle, and Tank feel like afrofuturist heroes because they believe in the possibility of freedom, despite being conditioned to feel otherwise.
Their presence also reminds us that vision is a crucial part of liberation. There is a scene between Neo and Morpheus that reminds me of how George Floyd’s death made white people aware of their complicity. “Why do my eyes hurt?” Neo asks when he awakes from being reborn. “Because you’ve never used them before.”
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.