Bemnet Gebrechirstos is Bitch Media’s 2017 Writing Fellow in Pop-Culture Criticism.
“I remember that for 100 years we have fought these machines. I remember that for 100 years they have sent their armies to destroy us, and after a century of war I remember that which matters most…. We are still here! Today, let us send a message to that army. Tonight, let us shake this cave. Tonight, let us tremble these halls of earth, steel, and stone, let us be heard from red core to Black sky. Tonight, let us make them remember, this is Zion, and we are not afraid!” —Morpheus, The Matrix Reloaded
Morpheus’s resilient declaration to the thousands of humans of Zion, who were the last hope for freedom from the Matrix, is the call that begins the most lit underground revolutionary dance party ever witnessed by my eyes, and probably yours. The sequel to 1999 now–cult classic The Matrix features 28 minutes in which—departing from the traditions of sci-fi movies that came before—the future is Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, and full of comrades dancing in the deepest parts of Earth, protected from their enemies by the underground caverns that hold them. In a beautiful cinematic moment, as feet stomp against the floor and hands call up the ancestral connection to rhythm through the pounding of drums, we see human bodies move freely and exemplify the joy that is created through resistance.
This scene is precisely what I picture when I think about the elusive, grand “revolution” that is so often yearned for by those living in the matrices of our lived reality today—an interlocking web of domination pinned into place by patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. In fact, the iconic pop culture references introduced by The Matrix, such as red pill vs. blue pill, have consistently been used by antiracist academics to explain relationships of power and control in our contemporary world order on Earth. (Now, of course, you can’t hear “red pill” without thinking of men’s-rights activists and pickup artists.)
But where does this very specific imagery—a militant Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, erotic, loving dance party—come from? It is clear that the scene’s powerful message doesn’t originate from its credited creators, directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski, one of whom appropriates dreadlocks—the visual is part of an intergenerational and collective knowledge cultivated by community resistance. But while this imagery honors historical resistance from oppressed groups, it is at odds with the franchise’s central character, a white-presenting man (Keanu Reeves’s Neo) who is positioned as the chosen savior in a battle for human liberation. The Matrix’s parallels to current oppressive reality reveals just how short the imagination of injustice falls in creating the material conditions needed for the world to actually be futuristic. This lack of creativity in producing real futures of freedom is not a shortcoming confined to the Matrix franchise—the “future’” politics of Blade Runner 2049 attests to that. In the matrices of today, these directors of so-called revolutionary movies all belong to a wealthy class that co-opts revolutionary images that derive from oppressed communities for their own capital.
This is especially relevant when considering the question of whether the narrative of The Matrix came from the Wachowski siblings in the first place. Black author Sophia Stewart maintains that the Wachowskis lifted their story from her 1981 manuscript The Third Eye. In 2003, Stewart filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit against the Wachowski siblings, Joel Silver, and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc, accusing them of using her manuscript to create the The Matrix, as well as The Terminator. Assertions that Stewart won the court case and was awarded a multibillion-dollar settlement have been repeatedly debunked but nevertheless remain in circulation, repeated as Hollywood lore. The court case files have been published online, as well as in the Amazon-available version of The Third Eye, which also includes reproductions of the FBI investigations and further court documents.
We will likely never know the real story, but we don’t need more proof that Black folks have always had to defend their intellectual work against both media conglomerates and individual white people with capital. A recent example of this continuous theft includes Kylie Jenner’s exploitation of Black designer Tizita Balemlay’s ingenuity; and earlier this month, Black trans activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett accused David France, the director of the new documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, of capitalizing on the years of research she had done for her own movie about Johnson’s life (unlike France’s, Gossett’s film was not funded). Stories like these will always exist because the theft of Black narratives is an exercise of control by white creatives who feel entitled to tell the stories of those on the margins. Stewart’s case is shrouded by conflicting information and missing details, but one thing is clear: Stealing from Black creators is a real tactic used by white supremacist systems. As such, the system that upholds racist media will only work to protect those it serves, and that has never been Black folks.
The Matrix first touched me so closely as a child because I knew even then that I was living in my own matrix, always fighting to get free from everything else around me. In a world that was adamantly oppressive of various of my identities, I first learned self-love by loving all the dynamic, fictional Black characters I encountered in the pop culture I consumed—and created myself—growing up. Seeing myself in Niobe’s (Jada Pinkett-Smith) bantu knots, Afro-cyber aesthetic, and position as a member of the revolution in the Matrix trilogy also affirmed that Black people are central in a future revolution. While now, I can love and affirm myself without the use of fictional characters, that doesn’t erase the merits of their existence within pop culture. The presence of revolutionary militant Black people in the the Matrix franchise was fundamental for me at a time when I had few opportunities to see my reflection in popular culture.
Now, some 13 years since watching the movie for the first time, I know that to see yourself represented is not enough. I don’t want the bare minimum of representation, I want a fucking revolution in pop culture. I want an overthrow of the matrix of ideals that allow for people of color to continuously be left out of sci-fi and fantasy narratives despite their realities being the plots of so many of said narratives. I want an overthrow of the treatment of queer and trans people of color by companies that work within media production. I want Black women’s intellectual work and creations honored without us fighting tooth and nail for recognition of what is already ours. If I’m being honest, I want an end to all the ideals and values that have bolstered Hollywood’s existence and success in the first place.
I wish I could write a few paragraphs that immediately deconstruct our real-world matrix of injustice, but if that were possible, we’d have been living in a liberated Zion centuries ago. Although if there’s anything that technological innovation and social media has taught us, it’s that pop culture is a fluid, mercurial space where we can influence our images, deconstruct matrices of power, and shape new ways of understanding our surroundings. Our responsibilities as intersectional feminists must then involve making media and pop culture into accessible platforms for active, radical self-decolonization. The process of decolonization holds building relationships of accountability between everyone, from celebrities to community members, as central to achieving liberation. This responsibility must drive our collective passion for both addressing and understanding pop culture and its functionality as a medium through which meanings are produced.
This isn’t bringing new politics into pop culture, it’s unearthing an already present violence that is so easily hidden by historical conditions of colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. As a Bitch Media writing fellow, I’m setting out to explore and interrogate pop culture’s visual-media productions and trending phenomenons through a Black, working-class, feminist, and queer lens. As Thomas Sankara once said, “We must dare to invent the future.” This means honoring in particular the culture and creations of Black queer resistance, which is exactly where the future has always rested.