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"

By Grisso*

"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 -- concocted by 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, namely 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 alive."

Meantime, Morpheus has found Neo, believing him to be The One. His deputy, Trinity, played by actress Carrie-Anne Moss, 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, face Truth. 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 -- wins.

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 space-ship in 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 "Moor." 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 liberation. 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.