How High: Blaxploitation, Stoner Flick, or Both?

This week for our 4/20 special we decided to watch How High, the Method Man and Redman vessel about a non-traditionally educated but highly intelligent man and his bumbling friend finding their way into Harvard thanks to a perfect score on their THCs (Testing for Higher Credentials). Throughout the film there are countless low-brow jokes surrounding stoner stereotypes, bodily functions and sexual innuendos; all of these interwoven with stereotypical African-American humor (I’m trying to stay PC here). This caused me to pause and question, is this a Blaxploitation film with pro-pot subtext, or a Stoner Movie that has black characters? Many stoner movies seem to embrace ethnic diversity (see: Half Baked, Cheech and Chong, Harold and Kumar), but is this a result of a more accepting and open-minded culture, or an attempt to appeal to as broad an audience as possible when the subject matter is inherently restrictive to those who partake in the devil’s lettuce?

To start with, there a dearth of diversity in the films dynamic characters. We see some development in Silas P. Silas (Method Man) and Jamal King (Redman), and in the female love interests for the two, but otherwise every other character fails to evolve in any meaningful way. There are the stereotypical upper-class jocks, oblivious professors, a classic “uncle Tom” character (the films words), and a zany Asian character. Throughout the film, there are plenty of jokes made comparing these stereotypes commonly found in exploitation movies against stoner stereotypes, sometimes with great success, others with very little. One example is when Silas and Jamal bake a special batch of brownies for their uptight Dean of Freshmen (the uncle Tom character) and he loses his inhibitions, speaking in ebonics and dancing like an extra on Soul Train at an upscale gala. Rather than being empowered by his ethnicity and new-found linguistic and athletic freedom, not to mention his colleagues finding him more appealing to spend time with, he is ashamed of himself and punishes the two protagonists. This leans more to the belief the film is a Stoner movie, as the authority figure and main antagonist is given more reason to dislike the main characters. An easy to dislike authority figure is a common trope in both Blaxploitation and Stoner movies, but for that (main) authority figure to also be black definitely shies away from Blaxploitation.

Point, Stoner movie.

Next is the music. Method Man and Redman got their start in entertainment as rappers, frequently collaborating on albums, and working with groups like Wu Tang Clan, and Def Squad. Hip-Hop is definitely a centerpiece in the movie, though there are songs from a variety of genres like Rammstein’s Du Hast, Parliament’s Flashlight, and Saliva’s Click Click. The use of music in the film serves an expository purpose, with songs like “How To Roll A Blunt” playing when a large marihuanna cigar is created, “Bicycle Race” playing when an weaselly white character chases after his errant pedal bike, and “Sweet Thing” used to introduce a love interest. While this does not exclude the film from the Stoner genre, the music and the ethnicity of the music’s producers tend to line up and match with the characters on screen and the image they are portraying about that stereotype.  This is done in a positive way for the black characters, and usually in a negative way for non-black characters. There is also a notable amount of funk, a common type of music found in most Blaxploitation movies. When viewed through this lens, this film definitely fits into the Blaxploitation mold.

Point: Blaxploitation flick.

When the film ends, society and Harvard are left in much the same shape as before the events therein unfolded. The non-black characters remain largely unchanged with the exception of the main antagonist, Dean Cain (a Superman joke? A Dean Cain joke? Is this a jab at a do-gooder white man, or am I just a comic book nerd?). The ending is a happy one, and the use of cannabis is portrayed in a positive light, from it being the root of the main characters getting into Harvard, a severely uptight character loosening up, and ultimately proving to be the missing ingredient in an experiment that allows Silas and Jamal to stay in school. Stoner culture throughout the movie is portrayed for the most part as positive, a way to make friends, relax, and overcome personal obstacles. This is typical of Stoner movies, and when at the end of the film (spoiler alert) Ben Franklin is shown to have invented the industrialized world’s first bong, there is an acceptance from all but Dean Cain that this is a positive discovery. The fact that the White Man, Harvard’s predominantly white board (all white, after Dean Cain is fired), will make money on this discovery (made by a black student, who will see no profit) removes all semblance of a blaxploitation flick, which must glorify black culture at the cost of the White Devil.

Point: Stoner movie.

In the end, the movie has elements of blaxploitation, but is at it’s core a Stoner flick. The positive portrayal of chronic, the non-negative portrayal of white authority figures, and overall positive tone of inter-racial relations (the impetus of Silas and Jamal getting into Harvard is based on Fred Willard as the Chairman of the Board at Harvard demanding more diversity on their campus) creates a positive experience where viewers can walk away feeling that thanks to ganja, the world within the film is made a better place. The film succeeds as a Stoner movie with elements of Blaxploitation (music, characters, stereotypes). The film is worth a watch with some bud and some buddies, just don’t expect to see anything cinematically ground breaking.

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