When the call came two years ago, Cornel West was still one of the elite professors at Harvard University. A bitter dust-up over his off-campus activities was brewing, but he hadn't yet decamped for Princeton.
On the other end of the line was Larry Wachowski, the writer-director who, along with his brother Andy, created the worldwide movie phenomenon "The Matrix." He wanted to know if the high-profile scholar would appear as a character in the two sequels.
"I said, 'Good God almighty,' " West recalled. "He said my writings had been influential in his writing the movie. He had read my first book, 'Prophesy Deliverance!,' and 'Race Matters.' I was flabbergasted. He said he had written a role for me, Councillor West, and he wanted me to play it. I said, 'You've got to be kidding.' "
As it turned out, the two sentences the Wachowskis had written for West's character ("Comprehension is not requisite for cooperation" is the one he remembers) run counter to West's body of work, which champions progressive socialism and the power of diversity in society.
But "The Matrix Reloaded," the second part of a trilogy about the last citizens on Earth threatened with extinction by machines, is a "sophisticated work of art" that, he said, captures the core themes of his social, religious and philosophical writings. The role (an elder of the human community of Zion) is dignified, he decided, and participating would allow him to reach out beyond academia.
West decided he was ready for his close-up. He flew to Sydney, Australia, for a 2 1/2-week shoot. There, he met the Wachowskis and had "long philosophical discussions" between takes and in restaurants about the purpose of life and the role of technology in science and history. They covered a range of thinkers including Lewis Mumford, Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, Homer and Nikos Kazantzakis (author of "Zorba the Greek.") "We talked about James' essay, 'The Will to Believe' in terms of Schopenhauer's challenge .... He was unsure life had a purpose at all."
Most Hollywood action movies have little more on their minds than presenting high-testosterone mayhem in ways that will appeal to teenage boys. Not "The Matrix," a film series that takes its philosophy very seriously (too seriously for the many critics who chided "Matrix Reloaded" for being ponderous).
West (who will turn 50 on June 2) became a kind of muse for the brothers, called "college dropout comic book artists" by William Irwin, editor of the book "The Matrix and Philosophy." West offered a focal point for the film, in which various academics and others find bits of Buddhism and Christianity as well as feminism, Marxism and nihilism.
At the core of the "Matrix" trilogy lies the disturbing notion that the world is nothing but perceptions controlled by malevolent forces. While the films repeatedly ask questions about the nature of truth and reality, the possibilities of choice and free will, the meaning of life and love, they offer no answers.
"They [the Wachowskis] want the audience to wrestle with it," West said.
In "The Matrix Reloaded," the citizens of Zion pin their hopes on computer hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves), who struggles with his role as their savior. West says the film has a "fascinating," if subtle, critique of "salvation narratives."
Themes in the sequel undercut those in the original, he said. "The first was all about Neo as a salvation figure, saving the globe. The second is a devastating critique of all salvation stories. It has political implications. It has religious implications."
The most fundamental parallel, however, between his work and the "Matrix" movies, West said, is found in the films' multiracial casting. In the city of Zion, most citizens are people of color and many of the movie's leading actors are black (Laurence Fishburne, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye, Harry Lennix, Harold Perrineau Jr. and the late Gloria Foster.)
People of color outnumber whites in the world's population, he noted. "It's not just the representation in numbers but the humanity displayed," said West, whose writings urge cross-cultural tolerance and a recognition of the power of diversity. "The acknowledgment of the full-fledged and complex humanity of black people is a new idea in Hollywood, given all the stereotypes and distortions," he said.
The son of civil rights activists, West was educated in the Ivy League, where he earned a reputation as an intellectually aggressive and cerebral student. He came to prominence in the 1990s as a young, hip intellectual who took his beliefs to the streets, an author who wrote books for an audience beyond academe. While he was acclaimed by some as a "black Jeremiah" who could engage almost anyone in serious conversation, he was also criticized for work that was "a thousand miles wide and about 2 inches deep."
In 2001 West was sharply criticized by Harvard University President Larry Summers after recording a rap CD and leading a committee for New York activist Al Sharpton's short-lived presidential campaign. West denied Summers' accusation that he had skipped three weeks of classes because of political activities and raised the specter of racism. Amid a spiraling tempest, he left a year ago, resettling in July at Princeton.
Unlike the president of Harvard, Princeton's president, Shirley Tilghman, has no problems with his off-campus activities, he said. "The difference between Shirley Tilghman and Lawrence Summers is like the difference between Abe Lincoln and Dan Quayle," he said.
Tilghman declined to speak directly about West, but a university spokeswoman said, "Our president here doesn't take issue with faculty members' various interests. She definitely supports Cornel West and his individual pursuits."
West teaches a course on the public intellectual as well as other freshman and graduate seminars. He is working on a book about writer Anton Chekhov and jazz musician John Coltrane, both of whom, he said, "speak to our time with a level of insight and wisdom that is rare."
He is enjoying a sort of celebrity among students, who are "amazed" that a professor would have any kind of relationship with the Wachowski brothers, he said. He has invited the famously media-shy brothers to Princeton to speak, privately of course, with students and professors. "They didn't say no, but they didn't say when," he said. West said his character, an elite who has to make fundamental decisions to save the city, is so unlike himself that he had to pick up acting tips in order to deliver his two lines.
He said Councillor West will also appear in the next sequel, "The Matrix Revolutions." And this time he hopes to have five or six lines.