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Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle: 5 Reasons To Celebrate The 2004 Comedy For The Way It Normalized Diversity

John Cho and Kal Penn in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Do you want to know my favorite comedy of all time? I know a lot of people will say movies like Ghostbusters, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Airplane!. Or, if you’re into the best romantic comedies, then movies like Sleepless in Seattle, Annie Hall, and When Harry Met Sally. But for me, it will probably always be the 2004 classic stoner film, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.  

And that’s the thing. I’m not really even into stoner movies. I think Pineapple Express is woefully unfunny, and I’ve never really vibed with the old Cheech and Chong movies (though I did appreciate their presence in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours). But, that’s what's interesting, because even though I know Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is very much a stoner movie, I view it as so much more than just that. Yes, it’s hilarious (“Is this your special bush?!”), but it’s also probably one of the most progressive movies when it comes to normalizing diversity in Hollywood, and I have five reasons why.      

John Cho and Kal Penn screaming in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

It Starred Two Asian Leads Before The Push For Diversity Was A Movement 

Nowadays, diversity is not only prioritized, but even celebrated. Heck, even this very Voices section was created in direct response to what was going on in the world at the time following the horrendous death of George Floyd. And I know this because our very own Erik Swann and myself wrote the very first article for Voices, which was “15 Great Movies That Explore Race and Social Justice.” (Which is a great article, by the way).  

But, long before we even had a Voices section, there was an unassuming comedy about two stoners with the munchies that could have featured two white guys (hell, it could have even been a semi-sequel to Dude, Where’s My Car? with Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott). But instead, it featured two Asian lead characters, one Korean, and the other Indian.

Here’s the great thing about this: The movie didn’t make a point to say, HEY, THESE GUYS ARE ASIAN, AND LOOK, THEY’RE SMOKING POT! Instead, Harold and Kumar could have been Joe and Steve. Or Sal and Mazen. Or Gustav and Reggie. Or, you know, pretty much anybody. The thing is, though, they’re not. They’re Harold and Kumar. That’s what makes this movie so great and progressive. Harold and Kumar are just two regular dudes who are super relatable. How often do we get to see Asian people just be regular, everyday people? Not often enough, that’s for sure. 

John Cho and Paula Garces in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

(Image credit: New Line Cinema )

It Highlights Asian Love Lives, Which Often Gets Neglected In Hollywood Films 

I hate stereotypes, but movies and TV shows are a great way to actually help destroy them. That’s why entertainment can be so powerful. For a time, the only movies I used to see with Asian people in them were martial arts flicks. Look, while I love all of the best Jackie Chan movies, and other great martial arts movies, all that did was create a stereotype in my head that went something like this: Asian people = martial arts.      

Which is stupid, I know, but that’s all entertainment was providing me with in my teenage years, and I didn’t really know that many Asian people growing up. In this way, Asian people were mostly sexless badasses. I didn’t see them as everyday horndogs like myself. But, Harold and Kumar destroyed that stereotype quite handily. Harold pines over his sexy neighbor, Maria (Paula Garces), and the two friends are even propositioned for sex in a threesome, where Kumar gleefully proclaims, “Shotgun anus!” 

Here was a movie that showed that Asian guys are just as horny as every other young, red-blooded man at that age, which did a lot to destroy the stupid stereotype of the meek, loveless Asian man, and even helped turn these two Asian dudes into sex symbols of a sort. Hell yeah! 

John Cho and Kal Penn in a car in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Racism Wasn’t At The Heart Of The Story, And It Instead Focused On Their Normal, Everyday Lives 

Another thing I really can’t stand is when movies FOCUS on race. Yes, those kinds of movies are important, and I think movies like 12 Years a Slave, and The Hate U Give are definitely necessary. But, when so many movies about a given race are just about oppression, it gets really depressing. Interestingly, there aren’t really a lot of American movies I can think of that are focused on Asian oppression, but then again, there aren’t really a lot of movies I can think of that are about the Asian experience in general (which is why you often have to find them in books, especially written by Asian women).  

With that said, racism does play a part in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. But thankfully, it’s not what the film is about. Yes, there are those two idiots in the car who shout, “Better ruck tomorrow!” at Harold, but they’re cast as the dumbest characters in the movie. Because racism IS dumb. And when racism is brought up, like it is in the sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, the actors are in on the joke. And I’d much rather have a comedy like that than some dour film about injustice. We get enough of that in the real world.    

Kal Penn and John Cho on a couch in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

But It Also Focused On The Pressures Of Growing Up Asian 

That said, both characters being Asian does play a part in the film. Harold, who is seen as the Asian guy who “likes” work, is given everybody’s workload so the other guys in the office can just go off and enjoy their weekend early. Kumar’s dad keeps pressuring him to attend a medical school interview, but Kumar keeps messing it up on purpose because even though he has the ability, he doesn’t feel like being pushed into the profession. Not now, anyway.

By the end of the film, Harold confronts his jerky coworkers, with his journey through the film being his self-discovery that he doesn’t have to be a pushover. He even gets the girl in the end! Kumar even decides that he wants to be a doctor by the conclusion, but he’s still not cool with the stereotype that Indians have to be doctors. So, race and the pressures of being Asian are definitely a part of the film, but it’s all organic, which again, is super progressive, and we don’t see nearly enough of that in modern American cinema.  

John Cho and Kal Penn in White Castle in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

It Spawned A Trilogy, Cementing Two Asian Characters Into Hollywood History 

Lastly, how cool is it that two Asian characters got their own comedy trilogy in America? Oftentimes, I think that most comedies don’t really need sequels. In fact, the ones that make it to number three often make you question why you even liked the first one to begin with. Trilogies like The Hangover, Pitch Perfect, and Look Who’s Talking come to mind. But, while Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay is probably the weakest link of the three, the third film, A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas is probably one of the greatest raunchy Christmas comedies of all time, right up there with Bad Santa.

This has cemented two Asian characters in Hollywood history. Whenever Christmas rolls around, there will definitely be people looking for funny Christmas movies that aren’t A Christmas Story or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and they might just pick A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas instead, which will keep these two Asian, pot-smoking characters alive for many, many years to come. How awesome is that?  

So, yeah, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is a landmark film when it comes to diversity. But, what do you think? For more celebrations of Asian-American culture in movies and TV, make sure to stop by here often. 

Rich Knight
Rich Knight

Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.