Amidst racial tensions and peak paranoia at the height of the Cold War, America (not unlike it is today) was a nation divided but somewhere a counterculture emerges promoting peace, acceptance, and unity. Progressive in this regard, maybe the volatility of the social-political climate created a perfect storm for such a movement to exist. Maybe it was a shared youthful defiance that was further galvanized by the music of Hendrix, The Beatles, and The Grateful Dead or maybe just maybe it was the rambunctious consumption of marijuana.
Flash forward to 2004 and America is yet again in a state of divide. Still reeling in the aftermath of 9/11 with the Iraq War and the ongoing Presidential campaign in full swing, a movie by the name of Harold & Kumar Go The White Castle made its way into theatres. Disrupting what has long been (and still remains) the status quo in Hollywood, Harold & Kumar featured not one but two Asian American actors in the lead roles. Directly opposing the ill-conceived notion that audiences would not gravitate to films starring actors of color, Harold & Kumar became a box office success subsequently producing two sequels and forever cementing their place among stoner flick royalty.
Following two unassuming underachievers, Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) on their marijuana influenced quest for mythical burgers, the film found an audience by defining its leads not by their race but by their experience as two friends searching for a way to resolve their case of the munchies. In doing so, Harold & Kumar became a relatable story not just to Asian American audiences but to everyone. The simple concept of the premise under the haze of marijuana smoke broke traditional perceptions of Asian culture and it is perhaps under the same influence that audiences seemed willing to accept two progressively different leads.
Continually challenging convention allowed Harold & Kumar to separate itself from its fellow stoner comedy peers but its lasting legacy exists not because of its casting rather due to its careful balance between transgressiveness and familiarity. Presenting these characters without minimizing their marginalization in society, Harold and Kumar themselves do not perpetuate the racial stereotypes frequently seen in pop culture but they are projected onto them by the film’s antagonists. Shining a much-needed spotlight on the racism (both obvious and subtle) that exists in America, the film does derive humor from racial stereotypes but it equally finds humor in subverting expectations.
Harold is a meek mild-mannered Korean-American financial analyst but that nature as the stereotypical nerdy pushover is countered with his uncharacteristic recreational drug use and his avoidance of the uptight Asian college group that desperately seeks his approval. Kumar is the intelligent son of a doctor saddled with the expectation of continuing the family legacy. Perfect MCAT scores and strong references aside, he is far more interested in the stoner lifestyle than that of a medical professional. Harold & Kumar thrives in this space constantly playing into and out of preset notions of identity. A far more encompassing take that acknowledges the complexity of identity as it exists in reality. Representing identity as a fluid place on a broad spectrum instead of the small boxes Hollywood tries to cram every one of specific characteristics into.
The backdrop of the weed-fuelled adventure to White Castle removes the necessity for iron clad logic while simultaneously elevating the suspension of belief when wild seemingly impossible hijinks occur. This along with the continuous deconstruction of assumptions allows Harold & Kumar to surprise. You expect the two seductive coeds to be one thing only for that image to be shattered when they engage in a rousing game of “Battle Shits”. You expect the boil infested hillbilly (aptly named Freakshow) to be a murderer with an equally unappealing wife but that too is rejected when his wife is revealed to be the gorgeous Malin Akerman.
Because when you’re talking about an extreme version of yourself, you want to make sure you’re not painted in a super shitty light.
Most famously the surprise appearance of Neil Patrick Harris (playing himself) as a womanizing drug/sex addict counters any image of the actor from his Doogie Howser days or his personal life (a full year before he would revitalize his career playing a similar character on How I Met Your Mother). Citing the baggage associated with being a child star with a more or less clean-cut image, he gravitated to the role because it allowed him to defy his usual typecasting and more importantly allowed him to play up the persona without being the object of the joke. Much in the same way Harold & Kumar tactfully handles the issue of race with respect for culture and identity, it is the same respect while pushing boundaries that has allowed the film to resonate and remain in the popular zeitgeist.
Over 10 years have passed since Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle was released but that progressive portrayal has not translated into Hollywood as a whole. People of color (especially Asians) are still woefully underrepresented both on and off screen in the industry and issues surrounding whitewashing and cultural appropriation plague the limited opportunities available to minorities. Debates around these issues often interjects the buzz word of diversity and varying solutions on how to fix it but the answer has existed all along. Harold & Kumar demonstrated it way back in 2004. Cast performances not out of a token necessity to fulfill a diversity quota. Create characters with depth beyond the stereotypes of their race, gender or sexuality. Stop segregating diversity as the other. Embrace the multiple facets that make up one’s identity.
And if there aren’t any good ideas out there? Then maybe it’s time to take a hit and head down to White Castle. You never know what could come out of the smoke.