I wrote this piece about why it kind of irritates me how quick we all are to refer to movies or TV shows as groundbreaking, and it made me think of something else: who says something needs to be revolutionary to be important? Hell, things don’t even have to be good to be important.
In that post, I brought up Harold and Kumar. And as I said, I don’t think that can be called revolutionary at all. But if you look at Kal Penn, one of the lead actors, you can see the clear progression of his career throughout the history of Hollywood movies with Indian leads. I remember reading an interview that he did once. It was part of the lead up to the release of The Namesake. And in it, he said that he was so happy to be working with Mira Nair because it was partially a movie she made in the 90s – Mississippi Masala – that inspired him to become an actor. The reason she chose him to play the role was that her son had seen Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and asked her to give him a shot because he was great. You would think that his image from that movie would have damaged his chances of getting the role, and in fact, it did. It made Nair think he was the wrong choice for the role. But he was only in a position where she was aware of him enough to both think he wasn’t a good fit and to have her mind be changed because of that ridiculous movie.
A movie directed by a brown woman with a brown lead inspired Penn to start acting, and a silly comedy where he played the lead launched his career and paved the way for his roles in The Namesake, Superman Returns, How I Met Your Mother, Designated Survivor, and more. From that perspective, Harold and Kumar may not have been revolutionary, but it was certainly important. But that wasn’t something immediately obvious. When it came out, it was just a dumb stoner flick with gross comedy that didn’t do well at the box office. It still helped the careers of its leads. It still mattered.
Sure, sometimes it’s clear when a work is important. Mississippi Masala was pretty clearly crossing boundaries and addressing topics few other movies did. It was a romance…but it was one that tackled the challenges of interracial relationships and intercommunity racism. It wasn’t clear what – if any – impact it would have in the long run, but it certainly was something new. Maybe you could call Harold and Kumar important at the time. I’m not sure anyone would, but you could say it. And it did have an impact. But the real impact isn’t something that could be seen until a few years later. It’s kind of like Star Trek.
Star Trek was a campy sci fi political drama that, in hindsight, looks hilariously terrible, despite the political allegories and moral questions. It was a trailblazer for representation even as declining ratings put it at risk of cancellation multiple times. But Nichelle Nichols as Uhura inspired Whoopi Goldberg to become an actress. She inspired Mae Jemison to study science. And Goldberg and Jemison proceeded to inspire countless people themselves. It goes to show that it takes years for the full impact of something to be seen. We need to give things more time before we decide what their place in history is. There are ripple effects for everything. Something may matter for one person, but that one person may matter for countless more. Something minor – the most trivial seeming of roles – can turn out to be more important than we could imagine. So maybe we should just take things as they are without rushing to declare it either the best thing or the worst thing in the world. Because if something is important, we’ll find out eventually. Why insist we can tell immediately?