In his review of Get Out, Armond White wrote, “Get Out does not rank with America’s notable race comedies—Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom!, Ossie Davis’s Gone Are the Days! (Purlie Victorious), Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback, Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, Rusty Cundieff’s Fear of a Black Hat, Skin Game or any of the genre spoofs by the Wayans family, particularly the ingenious Little Man, or the recent Eddie Murphy films (The Klumps, Norbit, Meet Dave, A Thousand Words) that are so personal and ingenious, they transcend racial categorization.”
I finally watched Norbit last weekend, and he’s right: the film is a transcendent masterpiece, one of the best American films of the 2000s and Murphy’s best work this century. Nothing else comes close.
White is also correct that Norbit transcends racial categorization—this is a visionary work by a major film artist. So what are the best American race comedies of the century so far? I like the Wayans films, but I still think White Chicks is a great premise let down by a subpar script. I hadn’t seen it in 15 years, but I returned to 2008’s Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay last weekend too after revisiting the first one. Danny Leiner’s follow-up to Dude, Where’s My Car? is nearly as brilliant, and while I loved Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle at the time, the sequel was too little too late for me. I missed it in theaters, and for all I knew, it was a straight-to-video release.
I remembered Kumar (Kal Penn) setting the plot in motion when he tries to use a “smokeless bong” he built in an airplane bathroom with a panicking Harold (John Cho). This is deep into the George W. Bush administration, and after six years of overblown Donald Trump histrionics from the man himself and people who never paid attention to politics before 2016, it’s sobering to remember how genuinely fascistic and scary those years were. Kumar gets stopped by airport security for a “random check,” something that happened often to Penn on the press tour for the first movie. As soon as they get on the plane, an old white woman sees Kumar and, a la Annie Hall, we see him through her eyes: an evil, laughing terrorist caricature as extreme as the rabbi outfit Grammy Hall sees when Woody Allen comes over for dinner.
It’s also important to remember that the first Harold & Kumar movie had a scene where Gary Anthony Williams plays a guy sitting in jail “for being black.” He explains to Harold and Kumar that “somebody in Newark robbed a Barnes & Noble, and I was the first black man they saw.” Harold and Kumar quickly escape when the cops rush in and beat Williams up in his cell for “resisting arrest.” I forgot about this scene until it came on, addressing “driving while black” a decade before it entered popular discussion. Penn and Cho’s characters were written as Asian-American, and just as Ashton Kutcher and Sean William Scott are live action cartoon characters in Dude, Where’s My Car?, Harold and Kumar are real people, real friends, and they’re the rare movie characters who I think of as characters, rather than the actor playing them.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is a kaleidoscopic view of 2008 America, where an idiot racist FBI man played by Rob Corddry tries and fails to capture the two stoners he’s convinced are terrorists. Along the way, he insults and mocks every ethnic group there is: he throws coins on a table to try and make Jews talk; he’s told Harold is of “Korean descent,” and assumes it’s North Korea; he assumes Harold’s parents speak no English and insists on using a translator with them; he slowly pours out a can of grape soda in front of a black man to try and intimidate him; and while Harold and Kumar are wandering through the South, they happen upon a KKK rally (with Howard Stern Show regular Richard Christy as a Klansman); and when Harold and Kumar jump out of a plane and parachute down into Texas, they crash through George W. Bush’s skylight, and smoke sherm with him (weed and coke).
Corddry is brilliant as the Bush 43-era racist, a real villain that still exists in America and has nothing to do with Donald Trump. This is a true military believer, an idiot authoritarian who likely would pick Ron DeSantis over the 45th President. He’s not kidding when he makes fun of Harold’s “ching chong” language, and neither is someone like Greg Abbott. Hollywood studio comedies didn’t used to be as delusional and alienating as conservative films and media. Once again, everything embodied in the Corddry character is the real-world version of Will Ferrell’s Mattel executive in Barbie, and that film’s political commentary is incoherent and naive on its own, but next to Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay? Please. This movie proves it’s possible to have fun, be dumb, and make a coherent and morally sound political argument.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith