We Was Elves? A Rangs–I mean–RINGS of Power Review
On Friday, September 2, Amazon Studios will dazzle audiences with quite possibly the most ambitious (and verifiably the most expensive) episodic undertaking in all of screen-adapted geekdom. I had the honor of seeing the first two episodes of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power in an advance screening, and let me tell you: they maximized every CENT of that $465 million budget in all the best ways.
As an avid fantasy reader since my adolescence, I was surprisingly late to hop on the train to Middle Earth. I was aware of She Who Shall Not Be Named’s magical boarding school, though it was forbidden in my household, as with most other households of the Pentecostal moral persuasion. I became obsessed with C.S. Lewis’ secret wardrobe that led to the land of Narnia from the moment I was introduced to the book and film series in my 6th grade language arts class.
Somehow, the fantastical trail of geekdom never led me to J.R.R. Tolkien’s well-crafted world of elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, trolls, and ents. That is, until I entered college at a PWI and inadvertently entangled myself involved with a well-known campus ministry, aka White Evangelicalism: Skinny Jeans Addition. During my freshman year, I shocked a group of fellow fantasy lovers when I quietly admitted after someone made a Lord of the Rings reference that I had never read the books or seen the movies and had barely heard of it at all.
A few days later, I was invited to a third-year student’s apartment to participate in my first-ever LoTR movie marathon. There I was, sitting on the couch being schooled by white college kids who had all been Tolkien/Peter Jackson enthusiasts since childhood.
In that moment, it all started to make sense: Lord of the Rings was an embodiment of the white American Protestant ethical imagination. As such, it bore no relevance to my childhood context that was consumed in Black Pentecostal fire. There was little reason for me to have encountered it sooner.
Even still, I was immediately enthralled by the majesty of Middle Earth. The sublime New Zealand-filmed landscapes, the lofty Howard Shore-composed score, and the cast of courageous characters who made you want to follow them into the mountains of Mordor to destroy the One Ring and conquer evil for Good were awe-inspiring.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore the glaring whiteness of it all when rewatching these films with post-2020 social, political, and theological clarity. The dark-skinned Easterling and Southron servants of Sauron and the Black-coded Uruk Hai with their dark skin and dreadlocks hit different in this current age of sociological and historical awareness. This is especially palpable when you remember that these films dominated the box office at the height of the “War on Terror.” In the thick of this cultural landscape, Peter Jackson’s original trilogy might’ve looked like an allegorical dramatization of the Bible to those looking for prooftexts to justify a special post-9/11 brand of racism, imperialism, and xenophobia.
With these poignant (if not also controversial) cultural, political, and religious legacies to consider, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power accomplishes an incredible feat. The creative team successfully captures the same spirit of splendor and majesty that first entranced audiences to draw us back into the magic of Middle Earth after 8 long years of dormancy.
Prequels are a risky business for any intellectual property, but a world based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s timeless literary vision, which has amassed a multi-generational cult following over the last several decades, is a particularly daunting challenge.
I’m here to be a witness that this series nails it. Each episode feels warmly familiar–harkening back to Peter Jackson’s artistic execution that first captured audiences in 2001–yet new in ways that make you eager for more. Everything is there: the splendor of visual design, the voluminous score to match the tonal intensity or softness of each scene, the high-stakes conflict, and the satisfaction of following characters in a fully realized world.
Beyond the nostalgia and cinematic wonder, I found the deep sense of environmentalism that The Rings of Power invokes to be especially moving in this era of climate catastrophe. Also present are themes of good vs. evil, duty, friendship, legacy, and forgiveness that are presented through the culturally familiar lens of communalism. There is even a sense of prophetic lament that will be recognizable to anyone who has spent any length of time with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
Of course, in this age of backlash to racial justice, the inclusion of Black people and other people of color in The Rings of Power has caused bigoted fandom gatekeepers to show out. They have flooded various media spaces to express their displeasure that Black people and people of color have dared to take up space as heroes in their [fantasy] land governed by [white] Christian values instead of being relegated to the place of not-so-subtly-racially-coded monsters and villains.
But don’t people acting up stop you from tuning in when this series makes its way to the general audience on September 2.
Whether you’re a hardcore Tolkien enthusiast who re-read every book and re-watched every film to prepare for this series, a casual lover of the LoTR film adaptions who hasn’t seen them in a while, or a newbie who heard they were finna have some Balck elves and dwarves and want to see what all the fuss is about; I encourage you to tune in. Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a cinematic feast that is sure to blow you away.
Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is streaming on Amazon Prime.