Sunday, August 15, 2004

Harold & Kumar Go To...Fight White Power?

Despite the current popular, political argument that life imitates art (or see: kids smoke and kill people because they are influenced by what they see on a screen at the local-plex) Hollywood has notoriously been behind the social times in reflecting what is going on in the moment when their films are released. For example, the overt personal artistic expression that littered art, literature and music in the 1950's and 1960's in this country only flowered in American Cinema in the 1970's. While Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1946, it took years after that before African Americans stepped out from the stereotypical roles they were usually relegated to on film...ironic for a supposedly liberal-leaning town. Part of the reasoning for this social delay is because of the time it takes to produce a film, but more importantly because major studios have often treated us, its audience, like kids with too much money in our wallet; by providing us with a two-hour escape from society rather than inciting us to question it. Plainly, it's just more profitable that way. However, Hollywood does sometimes catch up...and indeed the stoner-comedy Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle is an excellent example of the freeing of two otherwise forgotten-on-film minorities from the stereotypical ties that had previously bound them to anonymity.

Despite current continuous, necessary and vigilant calls for more roles and roles of power for African Americans, Hollywood has slowly integrated and enfranchised the African American on film. There is a stronger African American voice in Hollywood today then there has been ever before; actors like Denzel Wahington and Halle Berry have broken through racial-character stereotypes and play racially indifferent lead roles; roles that probably would have gone to an Anglo actors even fifteen to twenty years ago. Is there any doubt that a Manchurian Candidate remake or The Pelican Brief would have featured white lead actors had they been made in a different era? That Mario Van Peeples can make a film today (Badassssss!) about the independent, albeit meager beginnings of African American filmmaking is truly a signpost of how far things have come. The crossover mainstream success of films like Barbershop has proven that Hip-Hop culture is hip enough or, more importantly, a viable enough money-making product that major studio executives have noticed and responded.

Which brings us to the representation of Asian-Americans and Indians (the ones from India, not the reservation) on film. Has Hollywood similarly enfranchised these minorities in movies as much as African Americans? I would argue not. For years in American movies, there was an unwritten policy that Anglos played major character parts that were clearly identified or intended to be other minorities: David Carridine's "Caine" comes to mind; Twenty years ago, Ben Kingsley, an Englishman, played famous Indian leader Mohatma Ghandi. Even today, in a more "enlightened" era, many films that feature Asian Americans or Indians place them in squarely stereotypical supporting roles. While actors like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan have made names for themselves as lead actors in Hollywood, it is surely not based on their acting skills first, but for their martial arts prowess. The stereotypes of these minorities portrayed in modern film and television seep into public consciousness and into popular culture. Among the oft regurgitated lines in pop culture and, especially, male-fraternizing conversation, are from The Karate Kid. Pat Morita's (Shock! Another Asian in a popular martial arts movie!) Asian-cum-Hollywood "philosophies" like "Wax on, Wax off," "Sand The Floor" and "Karate here; Karate not here." How many times have we seen Indians portrayed in film and popular culture as cab drivers, one-dimensional sentimental losers or comic foils (up to Kal Penn's character in Van Wilder, Apu from The Simpsons)? Is there a more over used "go-to" for a laugh then an Indian accent? Somehow, these minorities have taken the current mantel for a "bookish" or "nerdy" character in a film...which seemingly represents a step-up on the Hollywood evolutionary minority-ladder from "non-existence" to "let's laugh at them." There are millions of people in many areas of this country whose ideas and images about these minorities come from what they see on mainstream film and TV...only!

In Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle we have an excellent leap forward in an effort to smash this ideological barrier. In fact, the film does a complete switcheroo, stereotyping white people while ascending the protagonists to multi-dimensional character status. For example, there are the "Extreme" dudes (representing skateboard youth culture), the cops (representing patriarchal authority), and the business executives (representing corporate America) all of whom constantly fight to squeeze our heroes back into the squarepeggish-holes they came from. What ammunition do they use? Some of the very same pop-culture references mentioned above (Both The Karate Kid and The Simpsons are cited) and the stereotypes they foster ("What kind of name is "Kumar" anyway?). Even members of Harold and Kumar’s own racial minorities try to reclaim then and mold (or hold?) them back into the stereotypical clay figures they are breaking away from. Consider Harold’s repeated abhorrence of an Asian club trying to recruit him. Indeed, the members of the club are first portrayed in the typical pre-established minority light (tending towards dorkish) until we see them later partying as hard as any bunch of white-baseball-hat wearing frat guys; another example of the filmmaker’s opening the book you were judging previously by its cover. For Kumar, his immigrant-turned successful doctor father fights hard to force his son to focus onto becoming a doctor (a program his older brother already submitted to) himself and little else. Kumar is more than bright enough, as evidenced by the sequence where he performs a difficult surgery without breaking a sweat or training. There is also a powerful passing of the minority-enfranchisement-mantle in the film. There’s a scene where an African-American offers Harold sage words of racial tolerance advice in prison; the only time in the film when another character offers encouragement instead of hatred. Harold and Kumar are our heroes in the film, the protagonists the filmmakers ask us to identify with...and we easily can. They are bright, young, urban professionals fresh from the womb of college who just want to get high and eat some burgers! That's me! Or at least it was a few years ago... and I am neither Asian nor Indian. Thus, both Harold and Kumar enjoy all the rewards bestowed normally upon their heroic brethren at the end of a movie: the girl, triumph over their enemies and, for the sake their own story, tons of White Castle burgers.

So what is the easiest, most subtle way for the film establishment to welcome these minorities into mainstream characterhood? The cinematic tablet easiest to swallow (and responsible for the negative images in the first place): the comedy or more specifically, the stoner comedy. Amazing to think a dime bag, glass bong and some hamburgers can try to right the wrongs of previous media injustices for a whole new generation of eyes and minds.

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