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The Billion-Dollar Myth

The 'Matrix' movies portray a frightening alternate reality. When a writer sued the movies' creators for stealing her ideas, she inadvertently exposed another reality--a racial one--that's no less troubling. By Kemp Powers

July 31, 2005|Kemp Powers is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

Sophia Stewart didn't attend her June 13 hearing at the U.S. federal court building in downtown Los Angeles. She saw the proceeding as a minor hurdle on the way to an anticipated July 12 trial in her copyright infringement suit against directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, James Cameron and other defendants--a trial she imagined would be "one of the largest suits for damages in the history of the film industry."

Her lawsuit claimed that the lucrative "Matrix" and "Terminator" film franchises were based on her ideas. Last month's request by the defendants to dismiss the case was an act of desperation, Stewart believed, because her proof of theft was indisputable. Stewart had attracted many supporters (mostly African American, who agreed that Hollywood had ripped her off) and detractors who question both the validity of her claims and her sanity ever since she began trying to rally support for her case in 2003. She claimed that she would have "big surprises" for the judge and jury, as well as for all of the naysayers, when her case finally went to trial.

Unfortunately, Judge Margaret Morrow wasn't interested in surprises. In her 53-page ruling, Morrow dismissed Stewart's case, noting that Stewart and her attorneys had not entered any evidence to bolster the key claims in her suit or demonstrated any striking similarity between her work and the accused directors' films. Stewart says she is hiring additional attorneys and is asking the court to reconsider that decision, but earlier this summer, in a nearly empty courtroom 790 of the Roybal Federal Building, Stewart's case apparently ended with a whimper.

But as in the "Matrix" movies, there's an alternate reality to this story that says a lot about the continuing racial divide between a mistrusting black America and the mainstream media. Stewart's courtroom defeat stands in bizarre contrast to what many of her fellow African Americans hold true, or want to believe happened as a result of her lawsuit.

In that alternate reality--created by Internet chain letters, radio stations and reputable community newspapers, and still flourishing on the World Wide Web--people sincerely believe that Stewart won her lawsuit last fall, and that she now is the wealthiest African American in the country, thanks to a record multibillion-dollar award. Her supposed settlement has been hailed as a legendary achievement in copyright infringement law, and a major moment in African American history. People also think that word of her victory has been suppressed as the result of one of the most sophisticated media conspiracies in history--even though none of that is true.

The Wachowski brothers' professional resume was limited prior to "the Matrix"; they had written the screenplay for the lackluster 1995 Sylvester Stallone action film "Assassins," and in 1996 had made their directing debut with the low-budget noir crime flick "Bound." To hear Stewart tell it, that lack of experience suggests fraud.

"I'm the kind of master writer that comes once upon this Earth," Stewart says by phone from her Las Vegas home a week before the June 13 court hearing. "You don't go from [doing] a mediocre movie to a work of genius like 'The Matrix.' "

The Bronx, N.Y., native makes her living doing paralegal work and tax preparation. She is divorced and has two adult children, though she won't reveal her age, explaining that she doesn't believe in pagan rituals and refuses to celebrate holidays or birthdays. "It's all lies and illusions," she says. "We're timeless and ageless." She adds that her spiritual attitude forms the basis for the wise Oracle character in the "Matrix" films: "The Oracle is me. I wrote myself into my work."

In 1983, she says, she completed a science fiction tale titled "The Third Eye," which she copyrighted the following year. Stewart says the as-yet unpublished work--submitted as part of the fact-finding phase of her case--totals 120 pages, including a screen treatment, a 47-page version of the manuscript and a 29-page "original manuscript" with additional pages containing a synopsis, character analyses, illustrations and a table of contents. In 1986, she says, she saw an advertisement posted in a national magazine by the Wachowski brothers soliciting science fiction manuscripts to make into comic books and she sent them all of her materials for "The Third Eye," including a copy of her original manuscript. "My dream was to have my work seen as a movie and a comic book," she says.

Stewart says she never heard from the Wachowskis, and never had her materials returned. Morrow's ruling notes, however, that Stewart did not produce the ad as evidence. In denying that they ever placed such an ad, the Wachowskis said that, in 1986, Andy was just 18 and brother Larry was a 21-year-old college student.

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