The Harold & Kumar movies, written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, began with Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle in 2004. An atypical stoner movie, it featured John Cho as Harold Lee and Kal Penn as Kumar Patel, roommates of colour in their early twenties. It was followed up by Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay in 2008 and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas in 2011. Given the rise in Asian Hate reported in the news as well as the political times in general, these films are worth reappraising for what they do well as well as their shortcomings.
The first in the series is the most interesting, although the sequel was much more successful. The first film introduces us to our titular heroes: hardworking Harold and irresponsible Kumar. They are roommates and contrasts in type. Harold is meticulous, organized, career facing (he works in a corporate office) while Kumar is messy, reckless, and immaturely sabotages his med school interviews (he must apply to med schools in order to appease his doctor father who pays for his rent, although Kumar has no intention of actually going). The whole plot of the first movie revolves around the two friends/roommates getting high and deciding to take the long drive to a White Castle in order to enjoy the delicious sliders they saw advertised on TV. Various misadventures and challenges ensue.
The misadventures and crazy hijinks are in keeping with stoner movies but if we turn away from all the stoner stuff, we get fairly sympathetic portrayals of young people of colour, especially Harold. He is in the mould of the ‘model minority’, the kind of Asian who will not make waves, will keep his head down and work extra hard due to a materially ambitious nature, is too weak to fight back despite seething with rage, and works dealing with maths, finance, or some other support to those in executive positions. This is a typical stereotype that is ascribed to Asian Americans. Others include the dirty amoral foreigner who brings crime with him (think of Fu Manchu or the Triads) or the submissive prostitute (think of Miss Saigon or the way the workers at the massage parlours were cast in the wake of the recent Atlanta shootings). All three films conform to Harold in his model minority position, arguing against Kumar’s reckless and immature impulses.
That being said, there is real value in sympathetically presenting someone with Harold’s disposition. By the end of the first installment, Harold has stored up enough frustration and angst to confront his white co-workers who have saddled him with doing their work so that they can go out for the weekend and party. There is even a subtle difference between the two douchebaggy white co-workers. One is a straight-up obnoxious bully while the other is a little more sensitive, missing his ex-girlfriend, and hesitates before saddling Harold with their work, although he ends up doing it anyway because, hey, this is the way things are. At the very end of the film, Harold (and by extension, the audience) feels satisfaction as he dresses down the outright bully and embarrasses the weaker one in front of the woman he’s met. This is only the last in a series of entanglements with white tormentors embodying the state of oppression Harold and Kumar live under. One is a group of racist skater dudes who are into everything ‘Extreme’ and another is a small town police force that is equally racist. Both these factions also get their comeuppance.
A lot of the time, even though racial oppression and iniquity are foregrounded, the filmmakers will undercut these insights with gross-out gags or stupid slapstick. A good example is when Harold and Kumar end up in jail in the first film, a jail run by the aforementioned racist police. A cellmate of theirs is a morbidly resigned black man (Gary Anthony Williams) who advises them to never resist or talk back to the police but just take their beatings, helping the cops to carry them out even, because there is no point in resisting. As cynical humour goes, this is excellent satire, but it undercuts the more nuanced satire that’s also present in the film. Furthermore, the film doesn’t hesitate to truck very blunt stereotypes regarding everything from depraved and idiotic rural folk to vulgar and slutty white undergrads (women and their plight are not a consideration in these films at all). The film’s juvenile stoner roots ultimately rout the more poignant observations but those poignant elements are still there.
Harold’s own relationships with women are a good example of the opposing tendencies in the movie. He has no prospects for a relationship because he is too timid. Infatuated with good looking neighbour Maria down the hall (Paula Garceres), he is too paralyzed to talk to her whenever they meet. Instead, he draws the attentions of Cindy Kim (Siu Ta), a university student who continually tries to get him to hang out with her Asian students club at the university, jokingly referred to behind their backs as ‘the Joy Luck Club.’ Cindy Kim, career oriented, conservative, prim, and judgmental, is of course the kind of woman that Harold is expected to marry. However, Maria (at the end of the film, it’s revealed that she’s a model when Harold breaks out of his role and impetuously kisses her) is the kind of stereotypical woman that Asians are supposed to romantically moon over. There is this stereotype that both Asian men and women would ‘trade up’ by partnering with a white romantic interest because that would be considered more attractive and enviable, compared to an Asian partner. Of course, this only works for white partners and not partners of colour – whiteness equals beauty, unattainability, and desire.
Since Kumar’s character is not fleshed out quite as much as Harold’s is, proving more of a foil to Harold, he is not given a love interest in the first film. His uncanny ability to be good at medicine, despite not wanting to be a doctor, and his personality which is at odds with his father and older brother (both are highly regarded doctors) are highlighted. It’s not much but as a brown person, I’ll take it! It’s just enough complexity to state that Kumar emphatically does not want to play the part of the model minority and does everything he can to sabotage that role and get high. It is here where the films deviate from the stoner formula. Weed is great and holy but at the same time, it is the cause of the problems in Kumar’s life and by extension, Harold’s. Perhaps my favourite scene in the first movie involving Kumar is when they stumble upon a convenience store in which the clerk is a South Asian immigrant. Though he is incensed when he sees the douchebaggy Extreme skater jerks harass and bully the clerk, Kumar is too cowardly to help his fellow brown man and stand up to the aggressors. There’s a lot of insightful commentary that could be spun out of these small moments, despite the heavy handed comedy of these scenes.
Kumar is given a love interest and backstory in the second film, who happens to be white like Harold’s love interest, but she serves mostly to explain Kumar’s switch in his early years from a buttoned down pre-med student to a toking, devil-may-care, irresponsible pothead. Why she’s interested in Kumar herself is never really explained (the same ultimately goes for Harold’s Maria) although by the time we get to the third film, she has decided to leave Kumar because he does nothing except sit in his apartment and smoke pot and is clearly not ready to handle the news that she is pregnant. The third film (which in my opinion has very little value, either as an entertaining story or an examination of our two titular characters) makes references to Cho and Penn’s post-Harold & Kumar careers. Penn ended up leaving acting for some years in order to work for the Obama administration which I thought was an interesting and earnest lateral move, especially given Obama’s spotlighting of race in America during his terms as president, and the quips in the third installment cheapen this development.
Coming back to the second installment in the series, this was probably the most successful and strident of the three films in terms of dealing with the aforementioned racial issues. Set during the George W. Bush presidency, Harold and Kumar start the film by unfairly being thrown into prison at Guantanamo Bay. The Homeland Security gonzo in charge (played with ignorant gusto by Rob Corddry), despite intelligence from various corners, is determined that Harold and Kumar are operatives working on behalf of North Korea and Al Qaeda and is hell bent on capturing and punishing them by any means necessary. The stakes are amped up because Harold and Kumar are no longer dealing with local racist bullies but the nation (and all its federal powers) itself. Our heroes escape early on and begin an epic trek to clear their names. The filmmakers really decided to foreground the concerns with racism on this one and the bigger budget results in a movie with more ‘pow’ and ‘bang’ but once again, these concerns are sometimes subsumed to cheap and easy gags. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the ‘cockmeat sandwich’ scene that subsumes the actual horrible conditions Guantanamo detainees faced, or Neal Patrick Harris‘ need to brand women at a bordello. Part of me loves the ridiculousness of the humour but at other times, it serves to mitigate the films achieving the impact of a really honed and polished satire, such as Dr. Strangelove (on the political level) or Bridesmaids (on the personal level).
The greatest example of this mitigated effect is when Harold and Kumar parachute in through the roof of George W. Bush’s den. They tell him their woes, get high with him, and he solves their problems. He even compares the demands of his father, Bush Sr., to Kumar’s ongoing problems with the demands of his own father. As hilarious as it might be to see Bush stoned out of his gourd, it’s hard to buy him as some sort of fairy godmother or Deus Ex Washingtonia – after all, horrible practices and crimes against humanity were enabled by him and perpetrated under his watch. The ending undercuts the thrust of the whole second installment.
That being said, these films really are a blessing for what they do get right regarding the lives of people of colour. Even if their ultimate intent is only to celebrate simply getting stoned and sticking it to the man (‘the man’ being a variable concept that can be applied to whatever unjust forces and powerful people exist out there), they do it broaching lives and characters we don’t usually see. Even if the cultural consciousness in these films is only half-baked, the joy of watching them gets one more righteously high than the average comedy out there – it’s homegrown that the rest of us can own and enjoy!