Black actors, lots of them, playing characters of authority in a movie not tailored primarily for a black audience. And in futurist science fiction - a genre once so white that blacks wondered if filmmakers assumed their race was headed for extinction.
"I was like, 'I cannot believe all of the black folks in this movie!' " said Crews, 33, a Philadelphia writer. "Every time you turned around, there was a black person in charge."
Despite the running joke among African Americans, not one of the black characters gets killed in the first half-hour of the movie. In fact, most are guaranteed a reprise in the trilogy's final installment, The Matrix Revolutions, due out Nov. 5.
With at least eight black actors in significant roles, The Matrix is the buzz among black moviegoers who hope that directors Andy and Larry Wachowski have set a new standard for diversity in science fiction.
"This movie is certainly a move forward," said film historian Donald Bogle, author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. While noting that Keanu Reeves, The Matrix series' star and messiah character, is white, Bogle added that "the sci-fi drama may not be the same after this."
The Wachowski brothers have a United Colors of Benetton vision of the future, with Asians and Latinos also well-represented in The Matrix Reloaded. But it is African Americans who hold the positions of power in the blockbuster, which has earned almost $500 million worldwide.
Laurence Fishburne is credited above the title as Morpheus, the warrior-commander inspired by John the Baptist, who convinces Neo that the younger man is the One sent to deliver humankind.
Jada Pinkett Smith gets prominent billing as defiant Capt. Niobe, whose part will grow in The Matrix Revolutions. (The plot of the new Matrix video game is told from Niobe's perspective.) And the late Gloria Foster also gets major billing in her second outing as the all-knowing Oracle.
In an important supporting role is Harold Perrineau Jr. - the wheelchair-bound narrator of HBO's Oz series - who plays Link, the engineer aboard the craft Nebuchadnezzar. Harry J. Lennix is blustering Cmdr. Lock, and Nona Gaye (Ali) is Zee, Link's love interest.
In some really nontraditional casting, the Wachowskis hired philosophy professor Cornel West, of Princeton's African American studies department, for a small but significant role as Councillor West on the Zion Council of Elders. And champion boxer Roy Jones Jr. adds gritty, round-the-way flavor as Captain Ballard.
The last humans on Earth, residents of the underground city of Zion, are mostly nonwhite. Reloaded was shot in Australia, where Aborigines of all hues were used as extras, most prominently in the sensuous dance scene.
"When I first appeared on the set, I thought, Good God Almighty, this looks like a party in Harlem!" said West, who recorded a hip-hop album in 2001. In terms of diversity, "I thought, [the Wachowskis] must be a hundred years ahead of the Ivy League."
West said Larry Wachowski called him two years ago and said the professor's books had influenced him to write the original Matrix.
"I said, 'You got to be kidding, brother,' " recalled West, author of Race Matters. During long conversations with the Wachowskis, West learned the roots of their racial sensitivity: Their parents were civil-rights activists who took a stand against Jim Crow laws and worked to integrate Chicago's public schools in the 1960s.
As Councillor West, West has exactly one line, but a provocative one: "Comprehension is not requisite for cooperation."
The Wachowskis' multihued vision of the future was not initially shared by studio brass. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Fishburne said that Warner Bros. asked the filmmakers to consider casting a white actor as Morpheus. The directors said no, it was "me or nobody," Fishburne said. "They wrote the role with me in mind."
"One of the things I applaud Andy and Larry for is their affirmation of the fundamental humanity of black people," West said. "Black humanity usually scares [white filmmakers] to death. They don't know what to do with it."
Usually, they kill it off. Especially in action-adventures, black actors don't last long. If you blinked, you probably missed LL Cool J in 1999's Deep Blue Sea, so swift was his demise.
"In the original Alien, I wondered if Yaphet Kotto would be left with Sigourney Weaver after the captain got killed," Bogle said. "But [Kotto] ended up being killed."
From Buck Rogers on through the '70s, blacks didn't figure into the sci-fi equation. Eventually, African Americans won roles that were either menacing (the Star Wars movies' James Earl Jones, who wore head-to-toe black) or examples of tokenism (Billy Dee Williams and Samuel L. Jackson in perfunctory roles), Bogle said.
It was Nichelle Nichols, as Lt. Uhura, the miniskirted communications director of TV's Star Trek series, who in 1966 broke the racial barrier in sci-fi.
"As a black kid growing up in the '60s, it was a big deal for Nichelle Nichols to be there for me," said LeVar Burton, who was later cast as Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The 1966-69 Star Trek was groundbreaking, Bogle noted. Still, Nichols "was underutilized. [Series creator] Gene Roddenberry [had] written this whole back-story. . . . She was a linguist, she was supposed to have spoken several languages. I think the last thing he wanted her to be was set decoration."
Some believe that the Wachowskis, who do not do interviews, cast African Americans as citizens of Zion to add resonance to the movie's larger theme about the struggle for freedom.
"Whenever there's a fight for justice against injustice, there's usually black people in the fight. So [the casting] is not surprising," noted Will Mega, a Philadelphia community activist and Education Party candidate for an at-large City Council seat. Mega plans to see Reloaded again, alone this time.
"You pass the popcorn and you miss something," he said of the film's cryptic dialogue, full of double meanings and philosophical references.
What Reloaded represents, many say, is an opportunity. It can stimulate a discussion between black and white audiences, or it can be just another blockbuster with little impact outside of its special effects and video-game marketability, says Eugene Haynes, professor of film at Temple University.
"The question is, how do we get [from] where we are racially, as a society, to the place where we realize that we're all in the same boat?" Haynes asked. "Unless we move forward with that conversation, I don't see how just black people being in a movie makes it an improvement."
Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986