How “Harold & Kumar” Sold a Way Chiller American Dream

The stoner buddy comedy starring John Cho and Kal Penn changed the way Hollywood looked at “model minorities.”

Hershal Pandya

August 16, 2021

How “Harold & Kumar” Sold a Way Chiller American Dream
Cho and Penn in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" (2004)

One would hesitate to refer to a movie like 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle as “important.” It’s a movie where the titular duo smoke weed with an escaped cheetah on their quest to satisfy their cravings for middling fast food. If you’re holding out hope that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is going to issue a retroactive correction and award the film the 2005 Academy Award for Best Picture, you might be waiting a while.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to dismiss the film’s legacy too quickly. Against all odds, it left a lasting mark on culture that can still be felt today. Not only did it launch the careers of its two co-stars, John Cho (Harold) and Kal Penn (Kumar), but it was a critically acclaimed cult hit, grossing $23.9 million on a $9 million budget, and racking up a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was such a success on DVD that it even spawned two sequels: Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011).

But to chalk Harold & Kumar’s impact up to DVD sales and critics scores would be to miss the point. The movie’s legacy isn’t defined in these terms. It’s defined by stories like mine — of being a 13-year-old Indian kid in Toronto, so enthusiastic about the presence of an Indian character in a movie for mainstream audiences, that I pestered the owners of my local bootleg movie rental store for weeks to see if it was in stock. It’s defined by Reddit threads like this one, where one user commented, “This movie was a revelation to me as a 20-something-year-old Asian guy” and another Redditor replied, “I felt the exact same as a 20-something Brown guy.” For members of the South Asian and East Asian diaspora, Harold & Kumar’s legacy lives in the memories it created and the perspectives it widened.