I don’t smoke pot. I don’t drink. I don’t ride wild cheetahs through the forests of New Jersey.
Despite all that, I absolutely loved Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. When I first watched the movie, I easily identified with Kal Penn’s character Kumar. Again, getting high was never something I was ever interested in and even though I’ve seen the film a billion times, it’s still not on my radar in terms of fun stuff to do. But, Kumar felt real to me somehow. And that’s what good art is supposed to do. For that, Harold and Kumar will always hold a special place in my heart. Not being sarcastic whatsoever. I worship this movie. Every time it’s on TV, I literally have to leave it in the background at least, and try to do my work.
Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle is a simple story of two friends trying to get to a White Castle for a late-night snack after getting the munchies. Of course, the plot gets complicated, as they both endure an Odyssey-like quest through the heart of darkness that is New Jersey. On the face of it, the story can sound like any stoner comedy. Which it is in some ways to be honest. You have your weird characters. Your oddball moments (i.e. the wild cheetah). But what gives this movie life is the fact that it does also deal with serious issues, like racism and identity in the U.S. as POC.
One scene in particular sticks out. Harold, who is Korean-American, and Kumar, Indian-American, are walking down a block at night when a cop confronts and harasses them. The cop, white and looming, makes fun of Kumar’s name, and accuses them for jay-walking. Harold, who is depicted in the movie as the more responsible one, tries to placate the officer by apologizing. Kumar, however, does something I had never seen a brown person do until then: he challenges the officer on his ignorance, and calls him out as a jock-turned loser who can’t get over others of color doing better than him. This causes the officer to react, and ultimately, Harold ends up in jail, where he meets a man reading a book, and who explains that he’s held behind bars because he’s black. Harold is stunned at this, so the man elaborates what happened to him, which is a story, outside the ridiculous context of this movie, is a familiar one for many POC, of being accused of a crime you had no part in, and being misidentified as a threat.
Once more, Harold and Kumar is a comedy. Like any good comedy, they poke fun at the current culture. As a young adult at the time I first watched the movie, I saw an example in Kumar. I should be careful here and say, Kal Penn himself is a problematic figure (given his support for Stop and Frisk, and plus he’s chubby now). And also, I wasn’t meek before seeing his character on the screen. Whenever I had anyone push me around, I did my best to fight back. However, there were times when I did feel strange for doing so, as if I was perhaps focusing too much on race and what I perceived as slights were all in my head. All around me were Desis who seemed to acquiescence to the demands placed on them by society as well. In Kumar, I saw someone who was confident, and funny, someone who was clever and annoying, aimless too.
While we endure another Oscar night devoid of black and brown faces, a movie like Harold and Kumar remains an example of what’s possible in film. In it, we have characters of color experiencing micro-aggressions, which is something we all face, and simultaneously, dealing with friendship and even love. Another aspect that was striking to me, and still is, was Harold falling in love with a woman of color. In most movies, when interracial dating is depicted, it is often between someone who is POC and someone else white. This isn’t inherently wrong. Love is love. But, what’s been lacking has been persons from different groups of color mixing in mainstream entertainment. So to see Harold have a crush on a Hispanic-American woman was refreshing and powerful, especially today.