By Linda Morris
Cornel West had little more than one line in each of The Matrix sequels. He played a loose version of himself, a wise councillor of the last free human city on earth, in scenes shot at Sydney's Fox Studios more than a decade ago.
But it said much about West's rising stardom as a black American intellectual that the brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski wrangled him into their pumped-up parables about religion, revelation, free will and identity.
West is that rare figure: an academic of Ivy League pedigree with superstar credentials. He arrives in Australia this month for a speaking tour that explores the fissures of race, class and gender.
"Weeell," he says, when I ask him to introduce himself to an Australian public unfamiliar with his kind of firebrand celebrity. "I try to stand for integrity, honesty and decency — but I fall over on my face all the time and I try to bounce back — telling the truth, with a capital T, being witness to justice and being able to laugh at oneself."
West is a philosopher by training, a public intellectual by occupation and an impassioned orator in the tradition of a parish pump preacher — as befits the grandson of a Baptist minister.
His sonorous voice can thunder against police in Ferguson, Missouri, who shot and killed a black teenager, or charm the masses on The Late Show with David Letterman. He has even recorded albums with hip-hop bands.
West doesn't rant; he is articulate and genuine as he argues for a new way of living. Nor does he have much regard for the full stop. His voice rises and falls like those crackly recordings of Martin Luther King jnr's seminal call to end racism. No wonder Hollywood came calling.
The closest Australia has to the intellect and personality of Cornel West is Germaine Greer, says David Smith, a lecturer in American politics at the University of Sydney.
Both are intellectually respected, have a major media presence, are the voices of a politically marginalised group and have sustained political relevance over a long career.
In his signature three-piece suit and french collar, with a tumbleweed afro and gap tooth smile, West is a charismatic presence.
Over the phone from his offices at Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary, where he is professor of philosophy and Christian practice, he describes himself — not for the first time — as a blues man in the life of the mind, a jazz man in the world of ideas.
The late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane is a hero from his youth and he has been listening to Giant Steps on the 66th anniversary of its recording. The album was made just after Coltrane had left the Miles Davis Quintet and formed his own band, West recounts from an encyclopedic knowledge of black music.
Curtis Mayfield's Gypsy Women was the first blues song to capture West's heart. He remembers it playing as he crossed the rickety bridge from the "chocolate side" of Sacramento, California, on his way to kindergarten. By college, he had posters of Einstein and James Brown pasted to his dormitory door. In 2007, he gave the keynote address at Harvard's first symposium on the influence of Brown.
West has made three spoken-word albums, and collaborated with Prince, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli and KRS-One to connect with young black Americans who might be unlikely to read his books.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, West burst out of Sacramento, thanks to his penetrating intellect. His beloved mother, Irene, a teacher and school principal taught him to "treat others right, tell the truth, fight for justice, be willing to serve others, be willing to live and die for what you believe in".
His father was a civil rights activist. West once described himself as a gangster with a Robin Hood mentality; he thought about joining the militant nationalist group the Black Panthers but felt their ethos was incompatible with his Christianity. Instead, he directed his undergraduate rage into education.
He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his doctorate in philosophy at Princeton. He went on to teach at Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. He has written or co-written 19 books, including the seminal Race Matters and Democracy Matters, many of them bestsellers.
His writing draws on an astonishing range of influences, not just from within America's black community. In grafting religion and philosophy with literature and music, he has that rare ability to speak to non-academic audiences, white Americans and even conservatives.
Above all, West sees himself as a Christian figure, "a Jesus-loving free black man" since his conversion 54 years ago in Sacramento's Shiloh Baptist Church.
He has compared himself to a revolutionary Christian in the Tolstoyan mode, one who wrestles with his faith on a daily basis. Leo Tolstoy gave away all his money and died penniless in a train station.
But it is Anton Chekhov whom West regards as the greater intellectual influence. He came across Chekhov as a 19-year-old and is writing a book on Coltrane and the Russian writer. Unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov had a sense of humour, West says.
"He had an understanding of the human condition that allowed him to sustain his love and compassion, whereas Tolstoy would often swing back and forth from a state of emergency to a state of indulgence."
West isn't on speaking terms with the White House. He has described Barack Obama, the man he once campaigned with and helped become the first African American President in 2008 as a ''black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs'', a "Rockefeller Republican in blackface" and a "brown-faced Clinton".
His blunt assessment has cost him friends, notably the academic and author Michael Eric Dyson, who penned a slap down in The New Republic in April: "In truth, West is a scold, a curmudgeonly and bitter critic who has grown long in the tooth but sharp in the tongue when lashing one-time colleagues and allies."
West is not backing down. In the eight years of Obama's presidency, "child poverty has gotten worst, police brutality has gotten worse, welfare inequality has gotten worst, more drones are dropping bombs on innocent people," he says.
Under a black presidency, where 40 per cent of black children live in poverty, silence is not an option, he says. "I don't think it's possible to be a decent human being and moderate your language while bombs are killing innocent children. I don't think it's possible to moderate your language and be a different person when thousands of human beings are wrestling with massive unemployment and underemployment. It is not possible for me to be a decent human being and be moderate, in the face of injustice."
Smith says much of West's criticisms reflect the disappointment of the Left and the African-American community in the Obama administration. "The criticism he makes is not unique," he says. "The stridency in which he makes them is."
As for his legacy, West summons the words of Irish writer Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.''
This article was originally published in Fairfax Media