The Black Cat cutting off the Serpent's head, from a Dublin papyrus. Credit: Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead
The Key to "The Matrix"
"The Matrix" is an extremely well-made movie that succeeds
as action-packed, sci-fi thriller. But it is more, besides.
And some of that is disturbing.
The premise of the movie is that the world isn't real,
but rather a virtual-reality illusion -- The Matrix --
machines which have taken over the world, and which
are dependent on humans as its source of energy.
In this virtual-reality landscape, humans go about their
limited lives of pleasures, pains, triumphs and defeats
in which all sensory illusions are open to them.
What remains resolutely closed, is Knowledge of
Who They Really Are, and the Truth of their condition,
that they have been reduced to the status of ...
disposable batteries, fuelling the Matrix.
If some of this seems a commentary
on life as we know it as the 20th century draws to a
close, particularly the condition of Black folk, hold on
to your seat, there is more.
There is an underground resistance movement.
Morpheus (the character played by Laurence Fishburne)
is the leader of this movement.
The band of
resistance fighters live in the real world,
which is called Zion, and they move about in a
space-ship called Nebuchadnezzar, from which they
have the ability to inject virtual-reality versions
of themselves into the Matrix. However, since
"the body cannt live without the mind," it turns
out that if their virtual-reality selves are
killed, their real selves in Zion also die.
According to prophecy, there is to rise up a
"Chosen One," who will liberate humans from their
enslavement, and Matrix-generated illusions.
Morpheus has spent his whole life looking for
"The One," for, as foretold by the Oracle,
he believes that it will be
his destiny to find him.
Enter Neo, a name, by the way, which is an obvious
anagram of "One," and who is played
by Keanu Reeves. Neo is the one!
As the story begins, Thomas Anderson is a computer programmer
working unhappily 9-to-5 in his little cubicle
for a large software company. At night,
more happily, he is a computer hacker known as Neo.
He knows, somewhere deep within his being, that
there is more to life than the illusions,
unbeknownst to him at that point, thrown up by
the Matrix. But as a hacker, he finds clues here
and there, and has heard of Morpheus, who is
called by the authorities "the most dangerous man
Meantime, Morpheus has found Neo, believing him
to be The One. His deputy, Trinity, played by actress
initiates contact. She causes enigmatic, prophetic
messages to appear on his computer screen. "Wake
up, Neo," reads one message, as Neo snoozes at his
computer. As he wakes up, another message reads,
"knock, knock ...," just as a knock comes at the door.
Then a third message reads, "follow the white rabbit..."
as he gets up to go to the door. There he completes
a transaction having to do with his (illegal, apparently)
hacker activities, then is invited to join his
hacker acquaintances as they go off clubbing. He
hesitates, then sees a tattoo of a white rabbit on
the shoulder of one of the girls who invites him.
So, in an allusion to Alice in Wonderland, he follows
the white rabbit...
The rest is the story of his awakening to his
true destiny, to be the One. With much
spiritual and literary allusion and insight along the way,
the story unfolds.
Having tapped the lines, the authorities know that
Neo has been contacted, so they
go searching for him, hoping to use him
to find and neutralize Morpheus and the resistance. These
authorities are Government agents, all
dressed in dark suits, white shirts and dark
ties, and all with security ear-phones in one
ear, and wearing shades, in the manner of
Secret Service agents.
Neo is captured by the agents, who try to get
him to act as willing bait to catch
Morpheus. Neo refuses, so the agents attempt
to use him as unwilling bait instead, placing
a futuristic "bug" into his body, through his
navel, in one of the grosser scences of this movie.
He wakes up, thinking it was all a bad dream,
when Trinity contacts him again.
They meet, Trinity uses a most imaginative
de-bugging device, which has the effect of
reversing the operation which the agents had
performed on Neo, and more tellingly, of
convincing Neo that the earlier operation
was not just a bad dream as the agents had
caused him to think.
Neo is taken to meet Morpheus, where Morpheus
gives him a choice between a red pill and a
blue pill. The blue pill would take him back
to the illusions of the Matrix, and his meeting
with Trinity and Morpheus would appear to him
to have been nothing but a dream. The red pill
would, however, take him out of the Matrix,
with no guarantee other than that he would
enter the real world, and for the first time,
Neo of course chooses the red pill, and
his awakening begins. The story then continues
on to the climactic battle between good and
evil, and of course good -- in the form of
Neo, who after being trained by Morpheus,
counseled by the Oracle, and loved by
Trinity, embraces his Destiny as the One --
But does it, really? Or are there coded
messages embedded within the symbolism of the
movie that convey, to those with the key,
an entirely different message?
We have already seen the symbolism in the naming
of Neo, for the One. What about the symbolism
represented by the choice of the name Morpheus
for the role played by Fishburne?
The play here is on two levels. At the obvious
level, Morpheus represents the character Orpheus
from Greek mythology, who "almost rescues
his wife Eurydice from Hades" (Webster's).
Here of course Hades corresponds to the Matrix,
and the one who is (almost?) rescued is Neo.
On the second level, and now
as Mor-pheus, there is in addition an allusion to
the Moor, and to the relationship of the Moor to
Europe. The symbolism is too delicious for the
authors to resist, as they choose Fishburne, a
Black man, to play the part, moreover the same
Fishburne who has played the Moor in Shakespeare's
Othello. So Morpheus represents the Moor.
And the symbolism is by choice; otherwise,
why not simply "Orpheus", as opposed to Mor-pheus"?
Why this is significant we will see in a moment.
The authors choose Zion,
as the name for the real world.
The symbolism here is clear and obvious, as Zion
means heaven, in the sense of the final gathering place of
true believers. It is also used, especially
by the Rastafarians, eg. Bob Marley in some of
his songs, to distinguish those of the faith
from those beholden to "Babylon." If the "real
world" of the movie is Zion, then
the Matrix must symbolize Babylon.
That this is the symbolism intended
is confirmed by the choice of
Nebuchadnezzar, as the name given to the
Zion. Nebuchadnezzar was a king of Babylon,
spoken of in the Bible, whose dream fell to Daniel
to interpret. In his dream, Nebuchadnezzar saw an
image with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver,
belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron,
and feet of iron mixed with clay. The feet of
iron mixed with clay was struck down by a stone
made without hands, and the entire structure came down.
In the interpretation of this dream, Daniel said it
foretold four world empires including and starting with that
of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylon of his day, represented by
the head of gold, and
ending with the destruction of the final Babylon
represented by the feet of iron mixed with clay.
Many believe that the fourth and final Babylon
is America today with its European allies, the 19 members
of NATO, which, numerologically represent the 1+9=10
toes of the image of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, and,
in fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy, will be struck down
by the hand of God. Not only, therefore, does the
Matrix represent "Babylon," but by making the allusion
to Nebuchadnezzar, we have to conclude that the authors
wish to allude also to Daniel's prophecy.
Then there is Trinity, the one who effects the
"resurrection" of Neo. After having seemingly
been destroyed by Agent Smith, Neo rises again to
take the fight to final victory. This miracle takes
place only after Trinity declares her love for, and
belief in, Neo as the Chosen One.
The choice of the name Trinity for this character
is clear in its symbolism, albeit somewhat
sloppy in its application; she is there to
remind us that the Chosen One, Neo, is to be
seen as a Christ-savior character, one of the
Holy Trinity of Christian faith.
The passion play would not be complete
without Cipher, the
Judas character, who betrays Morpheus.
The authors do not do anything so obvious
as to name this character "Judas," but as
cipher means, precisely, "a message in code,"
(Webster's), we are free to decode
appropriately. But cleverly, the authors
have hidden the code within yet another code, for the
message in code applies as much to the Judas
symbolism, as to the meaning of the Moor
symbolized in Morpheus' character. More about
the Moor, later.
Less significantly, there is Tank,
a character born in Zion, and one who therefore
does not have the hook-ups needed to be injected
into the Matrix.
He then is the one who operates the
computer controls that inject the others'
minds into the Matrix, and who is thus the
lifeline that brings them back. Tank
phonetically includes in its name the Kamitic
word "ankh," which means ... no surprise ... "life."
Tank is Black, perhaps significantly, while Cipher,
perhaps also significantly, is white.
Finally, there is the Oracle, to whom the main
characters go to learn their
destiny. The Oracle is nicely played by a Black woman,
in a part of town that seems intended to suggest
the ghetto. She smokes, she drinks, she bakes
cookies. And as oracles tend to be, she is
maddeningly enigmatic. She tells Neo that if he is
the One, it would be like being in love: no one
can tell you if you're in love; you just know it.
But why a Black Mama to play the Oracle? On their
visit to the Oracle, Morpheus and Neo go past
a silent character sitting with a blind man's cane,
who plays no role in the movie except to sit there
as the others go past: he looks to be a Hindu
gentleman. The symbolism there seems to be to
acknowledge that the original wisdom systems of
the planet hail back to Africa, not to the Hindus
and Buddhists. Herodotus tells us, for example,
that the first oracle in Greece, at Dodona,
was founded by a Black woman from Kamit.
The symbolism here is in the choice of actor used
to play the Oracle, not in her name.
It is a symbolism that
would be appreciated only by those "in the know,"
which the authors clearly appear to be.
So what's disturbing about all this? On
the surface, there is nothing, and it is a
wonderful movie where the good guys are
wonderfully diverse: there is racial
diversity, sexual diversity, including
male, female, and one wonderfully ambiguous
character appropriately named "Switch,"
while the character Trinity seems trendily
lesbian -- she favors black leather
(or is it plastic?) when in the Matrix, and short-cropped
black hair, and is one ferocious kick-boxer --
up until Neo comes along. The crew of the
Nebuchadnezzar is so diverse it could symbolize
a right-wing caricature of
the Democratic Party. The Agents, on the other
hand, the bad guys, are monochromatically white, and male,
and dressed "conservatively" in suit and tie
as though they work for a Republican administration.
That is the surface, and of course we all
cheer for the good guys, perhaps especially
we Black folk, even if Neo, the Chosen One,
like that other savior, Christ, is depicted as white.
Beneath the surface, however, and coupled with the
symbolism already discussed which cannot be gratuitous,
there is reason for pause. Agent Smith, the
chief bad guy, has a scene with the captured Morpheus
in which he speaks disparagingly of "humans". He
complains of the smell, looking disgustedly at the
sweating, chained, and bloody Morpheus. He compares
"humans" to a virus that multiplies out of control,
consuming its environment as it goes. And he
compares them also to a cancer, a plague to be
stamped out. Is this code for White Supremacy talking
about Black folk? He then goes on to say something
to the effect that "your civilization has now become
our civilization," and "... the future is our time."
This is being said to Morpheus, who, remember,
represents the Moor ... by Agent Smith, who represents
modern-day Babylon. And Morpheus has been given up
to captivity by Cipher, a Judas who embodies a
coded message. Is this a reference to the fact
that the Moor did indeed give
Europe its civilization, only now to have become
an object of subjugation and exploitation ...
an enslaved people who provide an energy
source--through labor theft for one, also land
theft--for the enrichment scheme known as White Supremacy,
here disguised or symbolized as the Matrix?
This may seem a stretch, considering that the Moor
occupied southern Europe starting only in about
800 AD. But Bro. Hamza Catlett, a historian, linguist,
and Koranic and Biblical scholar in Washington DC, tells
us that the word Moor may be traced to the ancient Ka-mau,
one word for whom was rendered in the Greek as "mau-ros,"
from which derives the word that has come down to us as
If not to the Moors who occupied Europe
from the 8th to 15th century AD, Europe certainly
owes the Kamau -- the ancient Egyptians --
for the gift of civilization.
Bro. Hamza also tells us that
the word Kamau, significantly, means literally the
"black cat." And the origin of
the name is described in the Pert em Hru (the Egyptian
Book of the Dead) thus:
"He is like unto that which he hath made, and his
name became mau." And earlier: "I am the Cat (mau) which
fought ... on the night when
the foes of Neb-er-Tcher (God of all) were destroyed."
The illustration which accompanies this text shows
a cat cutting off the head of Apep, the serpent that
symbolizes evil. The black cat, aka the Kamau, aka
the Moor, thus represents the ancient Black civilization,
and the enemy of the serpent, the foe of Neb-er-Tcher.
Thus it is that
to the foe of Neb-er-Tcher, it is "bad luck" when a
black cat crosses one's path. Well, guess what, the
black cat appears with this very symbolism, and
it is soon after that that the Moor (Morpheus) is
captured, to be told by Agent Smith, as earlier recounted, that
"the future is ours."
Yes, I know that Agent Smith gets his comeuppance in the
end, as Neo rises up to claim his destiny as the One, but I can't
help but feel that the coded messages of the film,
to those in the know, are exactly the opposite.
Isn't the savior figure again white, and perhaps
calculated, like the false white depictions of
Jesus, not to liberate but to further enslave?
Isn't it again the Moor who teaches him and raises him up,
only in the end to kneel before him
and bow to his supposed divinity: "You're the man, Neo!"
It is an insidious message that is drummed into the
consciousness of Black folk at every turn. But it is a message
that we should reject, for that is not the way to our eventual
The question will be whether, and how, Daniel's
prophecy plays out, in particular whether it is up to the
"black cat", the Moor, to slay the serpent as he did once before,
or whether the black cat may safely stay asleep waiting
for the prophecy to be fulfilled without human agency, that is,
without carrying the moral obligation of freeing ourselves.
The Matrix is a masterpiece of the movie-maker's art. But,
as I said at the beginning, it is disturbing. For once
again, White Supremacy reigns, and it is all the more
dangerous for wearing the robes of a Cipher.
*(Grisso is a 48 year old African of the diaspora. He has
an engineering PhD, and is the author of a mathematical treatise on decision analysis under uncertainty. His email address is grisso@TheAfrican.Com).
For reader's comments on this article, see The Key to "The Matrix", Revisited.