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Hooray for 'Harold And Kumar,' A Stoner Movie With Asians

Pacific News Service, Youth Commentary, Neelanjana Banerjee Posted: Jul 30, 2004

'Harold and Kumar'

Editor's Note: When Hollywood gets its hands on minorities, movie viewers often cringe. But Neelanjana Banerjee, 26, got a buzz watching two Asian American actors play the stoner leads in "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle," released Friday, July 30.

SAN FRANCISCO--At a recent Asian Pacific American (APA) community sponsored screening of "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle," New Line's latest release about two dudes in search of the perfect meal, the line of young APAs stretched down the hall and wound up the stairs. The same conversation was echoing throughout the room: Is this it? Are we going to recognize these two guys, or are we going to come out of this movie embarrassed, dejected and angry -- like we usually do after seeing ourselves through Hollywood's eyes?

I saw an old co-worker of mine sitting a few seats away in the crowded theater. He and his group of friends, Chinese Americans in their early 20s, were worried.

"It's cool that it's so big," he said. "But couldn't it have been a better topic?"

Personally, I feel like I have been waiting my whole life for this movie. Not only was "Harold and Kumar" a mainstream, Hollywood production starring two Asian American men in the lead roles, but it was a stoner movie.

In the suburban Ohio town I grew up in there was a movie theater that played the 1993 Richard Linklater movie "Dazed and Confused" every Friday night at midnight for years. My friends and I would attend, quoting back the famous lines (Wooderson: "You got a joint kid?" Mitch: "No, man." Wooderson: "Well, you'd be a lot cooler if you did.") and cheering on the Texas teenagers in their quest for the ultimate high. Sure, none of the kids in the movie looked anything like me, an Indian American, but I was right there with them.

Like other classic movies in its genre, "Harold and Kumar" is an adventure story riddled with mishaps and guided by the love for marijuana. The great thing about stoner movies is that they become legendary -- made to be watched over and over and quoted eternally. The idea that kids across America will be quoting two Asian American guys, slapping Harold and Kumar stickers on their drug paraphernalia and watching this movie over and over makes me feel like we have arrived in a whole new way.

There is no lack of "diversity" in stoner movies. In fact, people of color seem to be holding it down in this popular film genre. From Cheech Marin's over-the-top portrayal of a cholo smoker in the classic, 1970s Cheech and Chong movies to 1995's uber-popular Ice Cube/ Chris Tucker hit "Friday," the weed seems to be growing in abundance in marginalized communities. Magical marijuana even helped Redman and Method Man get to Harvard in the bizarre 2001 movie "How High." But many of these drug-induced caricatures seemed to be equal parts empowerment and equal parts minstrel show. In Cheech's drunken ditty "Mexican American" from "Up in Smoke," he sings about how his people are like everyone else: "Mexican Americans don't like to just get into gang fights, they like flowers and music and white girls named Debbie too."

So, in "Harold and Kumar," when we are introduced to Kumar, played by Kal Penn, and he is sitting in a medical school interview with his tie askew and interrupts his interviewer to answer his cell phone and cajole Harold into smoking the sticky weed he has back at the apartment -- I couldn't help but applaud. I thought: A new hero for the stoner generation, and he could be my brother!

What "Harold and Kumar "achieves, beyond the typical weed-fueled, buddy-movie plot of most stoner movies, is to bring to life Asian Americans in a way that has never been seen in Hollywood before. Harold and Kumar are underdogs, sure -- the white guys at work dump on Harold, and the extreme sports losers intimidate Kumar and call him Apu -- but they are normal, horny, weed-smoking dudes. The writers, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, say they based the characters on friends they grew up with in New Jersey, where the film is set. From Kumar's doctor father pressuring him to go to med school to the black men they encounter in jail whose only crime was the color of their skin, I thought the film tackled issues of race and stereotype in a more complicated way than anything I've seen before -- especially from Hollywood.

Even though Kumar might be my new 420 hero, the movie wasn't perfect. For as much as APA men and issues might have been humanized, there were sexist and homophobic jokes aplenty. I know, these are integral parts of the stoner movie formula, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

After the screening, as the APA masses poured out of the theater, the verdict was apparent in the huge smiles and congratulatory feelings all around. A few small puffs for Harold and Kumar, one giant leap for Asian America.

Banerjee is an assistant editor for YO! Youth Outlook, a publication by and for San Francisco Bay Area youth, and a PNS project.

Related articles:

Thai Cinema Ready to Roll

Expect Stereotypes as South Asians Make U.S. Film, TV Debuts

'Lord of the Rings' vs. 'Matrix': Patriarchy vs. the Rainbow Coalition

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