Lord of the Rings vs. The Matrix

The "Lord of the Rings" and "Matrix" trilogies have defined early 21st century cinema more than any other big-screen flicks. But as critical acclaim has increased with each new hobbit-filled "Rings" installment, the "Matrix" films have fallen from favor. "Return of the King" is hailed as "glorious," "a triumph," and "masterful," while "Matrix Revolutions" is ridiculed as "dismal," "pompous," and "underwhelming."

Like most, I was entertained and awed by the artistry and technical achievements of "The Return of the King," but by the end of the film's 3.5 hours I thought the final chapter should have been dubbed "The Return of the Patriarchy."

The "Rings" films are like promotional ads for those tired old race and gender paradigms that were all the rage back in author J.R.R. Tolkien's day. Almost all of the heroes of the series are manly men who are whiter than white. They are frequently framed in halos of blinding bright light and exude a heavenly aura of all that is Eurocentric and good. Who but these courageous Anglo-Saxon souls can save Middle Earth from the dark and evil forces of the world?

On the good side, even the mighty wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) is sanitized and transformed from the weed-smoking, rather dingy figure we first meet in the "The Fellowship of the Ring," into Gandalf the White, who, by the time of "Return of the King," has become a powerful military leader complete with pure white hair and an Eisenhower attitude.

Say what you will about the convoluted storyline of the "Matrix" trilogy. At least those films give women and people of color some characters they can relate to.

From its earliest scenes, "The Matrix" flips mainstream Hollywood's minority representation manual on its head. A multi-culti group of hackers dressed in black leather and sporting funky hairdos are our heroes; Secret Service-type "agents" in suits and ties are the bad guys. Neo, the trilogies' central figure, is played by mixed-race actor Keanu Reeves. His savior and mentor is Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a powerful leader who also happens to be a black man. The wisest figure in "The Matrix" is The Oracle, a warm and witty African American woman. The films are also infused with a strong sense of Asian style and culture, exemplified by the character Seraph (Collin Chou), the Oracle's protector, who is both a martial arts expert and Buddhist meditation practitioner.

Physically powerful female characters also rock and rule in "The Matrix," led by the high-kicking Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the Emma Peel of the 21st century, daring pilot Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and military wife turned fighter Zee, (played by Marvin's daughter Nona Gaye).

Most of the really bad guys in "The Matrix" are Eurotrash, including the very snobby Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) with his French accent, the dread-locked, very British albino twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment) and the Oracle's evil counterpart, The Architect, (Helmut Bakaitis), a rather stuffy and pompous white guy with white beard and white suit who reeks of imperialism.

By comparison, three women play minor roles in "The Lord of the Rings": the powerful elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the selfless Arwen (Liv Tyler), who is willing to give up immortality for the man she loves, and Eowyn (Miranda Otto), the niece of the king, who must disguise herself as a man to go into battle. Beyond this threesome, the rest of the women of Middle Earth are largely an unwashed, helpless mass who, in the face of a virtually hopeless battle against overwhelming enemy forces in "The Two Towers," can do little more than look anxious and cower with their children in fear.

Plenty of critics got lost in the complex post-modern philosophy of "The Matrix," but a few noted its more important message. As the New York Times said of the second Matrix installment: "'Reloaded'" has one of the most excitingly subversive and radical points of view ever seen in a major motion picture -- a postmodern purview that accords philosophical ideals from people of color equal weight."

"The Return of the King" is a fantastic finish to a memorable film trilogy, but on a personal level, I was much more satisfied with the conclusion of "The Matrix" series. For once, the major female characters in an action film aren't whimpering and waiting to be rescued by some steroid-laden Schwarzenegger-type in the end. For once, all of the major characters of color aren't lying in a heap of corpses as the credits start to roll. To my African American female eyes, the biggest difference between "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Matrix" isn't swords versus automatic weapons, or low-tech versus high-tech. It's the patriarchy of the past versus the Rainbow Coalition of the future.

Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based writer and co-host of the "Morning Show" on KPFA-FM 94.1 in Berkeley, Calif.

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