When we first meet Neo in The Matrix he’s asleep at his desk—a recurring image in Keanu’s movies—bathed in the light of his computer screen. A message bleeps. “What? What the hell?” he splutters. There’s a knock at the door: “Something wrong, man? You look a little whiter than usual.” In the original script, this character is called Choi (“a young Chinese man”) but in the actual film Choi is played by a white guy.
It’s not clear why Neo is so confused, but for most of the film he has a similar look on his face—the look of someone who hasn’t quite woken up. On meeting him, Morpheus phrases it differently. He recognizes in Neo “the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up.”
This look suggests that Neo knows the world around him isn’t quite right but accepts its glitches nevertheless. Maybe he thinks they can’t continue forever. However bad the dream, it has to end. This would be typical for a Keanu hero: not in the prow; strong yet passive; aware of things being wrong but not actively looking to set them right, or waiting for the right moment to present itself. Led rather than leading, he works by intuition, not force.
Morpheus, named after the god of sleep, has come to tell him that now is the time to wake up and act. In the Wachowskis’ script, Morpheus is described as having “the unadulterated confidence of a zealot.” Rather than staying to defend his homeland, he has ventured in search of the One. Thinking he’s found him in Neo, he becomes his guide and mentor. Most of the film follows Morpheus’s attempts to teach Neo how to overcome the Matrix, as when, in kung fu films, the master takes on a raw apprentice. Here, since the kung fu can be downloaded straight into Neo’s brain, the purpose of his training isn’t so much to teach him how to fight as to get him to see the world differently.
But Neo has spent his whole life in the Matrix, a system of control so all-consuming as to have structured every aspect of his experience. To reprogram him, Morpheus has to start at the very beginning. Neo must unlearn his most basic impulses before he can reach the point of jumping from a tall building—a part of his training—without any fear of falling, without even expecting to fall. He needs to become a different person: a more fluid, mixed version of himself.
I first watched The Matrix on VHS in 2000. My dad had just bought a PC made by a short-lived computer manufacturer called Tiny which loomed over one half of our living room. While I sat on the other side of the room, in front of the TV watching The Matrix’s opening sequence—a loud gunfight and chase scene—I had to listen over the sound of computer cooling fans whirring menacingly in the background.
The disparity between the machines depicted in the film—capable of battery-farming the whole human species—and our own, barely capable of spider solitaire, should have been glaring. But in the light of The Matrix, our massive Tiny seemed to radiate a sense of possibility.
Keanu, too, radiated possibility. More than one and less than two, as Donna Haraway had it; or, as his friend Tirzah said, he was the kind of hero who could be “anything you wanted him to be.” When I went on our PC for the first time, basking in the white light of its screen, I had that same feeling as I did watching The Matrix, imagining myself as Neo. It was like entering a new, borderless world.
One of the few surviving fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus says: “the one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.” A version of this sentiment appears on U.S. coins in Latin—e pluribus unum—and was the United States’ unofficial motto for years, summing up the shared hopes of a single nation patched together from numerous states. This ideal is also inscribed into the meaning of the word individual, which originally referred to the Trinity: the three divine persons that make up the indivisible One.
Though Keanu is perfect as Neo, there’s something ironic about him being the “One.” He’s complicated, a man of many turns; his kind of celebrity is characterized by its diffuseness. Instantly recognizable—he can’t eat a sandwich in public without becoming a meme—and yet somehow inscrutable. Maybe it makes more sense to see him as the point at which the One and the Many (or Self and Other) meet. His aim, as he said in an interview with Detour Magazine in 1993, is “to fall into all categories—and no categories!”
Agent Smith is Neo’s mirror image. Where Neo is an anomaly, uncertain and rebellious, Smith is power in all its vestiges—white, male, state-sanctioned. More than that, he’s filled with a visceral disgust for humans. So while the other agents are anonymous men in suits, trained to fight the resistance with the bland efficiency of anti-virus software, he takes it personally.
Toward the end of the first film, when Morpheus is being tortured, Smith leans in close. It looks like he’s about to lick the sweat from off his forehead. “This zoo,” says Smith. “This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer . . . It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.”
On the tip of his tongue is the kind of racial slur that would place this scene in the prison cell of any number of anti-colonial fighters, civil rights activists, or Free South Africa protesters from throughout the twentieth century, or further back. In 1652, when Europeans first settled on the Cape of Good Hope, a white settler recorded his first impressions of the Khoikhoi people: “The local natives have everything in common with the dumb cattle, barring their human nature . . . They all smell fiercely.”
Perhaps the Wachowskis were making a point in their casting. Neo is open and unreadable, able to pass in a way that Morpheus, who is black, cannot. In spite of this—and the many styles of kung fu he masters—he can’t win by the rules. Agent Smith is not killable. As soon he dies, he reappears in the place of someone else plugged into the Matrix. Every onlooker is a potential informant, a body into which he can switch.
Morpheus’s task is to make Neo aware of the Matrix, to convince him that what might appear absolute and infallible is nothing of the sort. “You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt and disbelief.” But you can’t just be told this kind of thing.
The lesson Neo finally learns is to stop trying. Instead of trying to be stronger and faster than Smith, he simply leaps headfirst into his chest—a move that recalls his earlier practice at jumping off buildings. As Smith’s body shatters from within into a hundred tiny pieces of badly rendered CGI—apparently rewriting his code—the symbolism is clear: Neo is penetrating him. Smith’s face contorts with horror, or with the complex self-disgust of the white Southerner who, having ranted about the dangers of race pollution, finds himself in bed with a Chinaman.
This is mixedness as an explosive force, a special power: the Mixed-Race Superman become a strong wind bursting open the angry, controlling certainties of white manhood.
Even though The Matrix was released in 1999, part of its enduring appeal is that it feels like a post-9/11 film—a film for now. It responds to the lurking chaos, the grotesque inequality, beneath the flat surface of Western society. David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, also released in 1999, channels a similar fear, depicting a world in which participants can play out their darkest fantasies in immersive video games. In both movies, order is constructed; the threat of rupture looms. Power can only stay hidden for so long.
This essay is an excerpt from Will Harris’s Mixed-Race Superman: Keanu, Obama, and Multiracial Experience, out now on Melville House.
Will Harris is a London-based poet and critic. He is the author of the book of poems, All This Is Implied, and was awarded a Poetry Fellowship from the Arts Foundation in 2019. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The London Review of Books, The Poetry Review, and elsewhere.