This is the first major motion picture to showcase a black-Asian partnership (other than Whitney Houston's Cinderella, which was set in an imaginary world where race is clearly not a real issue). Jackie Chan stars as Inspector Lee, a Chinese police officer who is summoned to the US by the Chinese consul to solve the kidnapping of the consul's daughter. The FBI is already working on the case and wants Lee out of the way. They work out an arrangement with the LA police department. LAPD detective James Carter (played by Chris Tucker) is unwillingly assigned to "babysit" Chan and keep him away from the case.
When Carter and Lee first meet, Carter says to Lee, "Please tell me you speak English" and Lee remains silent. Carter assumes Lee does not know English. He starts talking in a slow exaggerated voice, "Can you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?" Lee smiles blankly at him. This leads into an acrobatic chase scene in which Lee tries to ditch Carter. When Carter finally catches up to Lee, he learns that Lee DOES speak English and only used his silence to scope out Carter. Then Lee proceeds to imply to Carter how stupid Carter sounded.
Many non-Asian Americans assume that Asians have a poor/non-existent command of English and often talk to Asians in that slow condescending voice not unlike the kind of tone they use on the mentally delayed. This typical behavior was aptly portrayed by Chris Tucker. Lee's comment to Carter: "I didn't tell you I don't know English. You just assumed I don't know English." caps this hilarious scene and confronts this stereotype.
Another nice twist in the movie involves Lee's attempts to track down the Hong Kong crime boss known as Juntao. No one has ever seen Juntao, though Lee has fought his Chinese henchmen. Carter helps Lee realize the true identity of Chinese supercriminal Juntao -- the stereotypical image of the Asian crime lord is stripped away to reveal -- a European male.
The movie plays around with twisting stereotypes and racial misunderstandings in a number of hilarious scenes. I won't tell you all about it. Go rent the video.
On the minus side, detective cooper's sexual harassment of his fellow officer Tania Johnson, played by Elizabeth Pena, is portrayed lightheartedly. In one scene, Carter asks "What kind of panties are you wearing?" over the phone. To her credit, Johnson hangs up instantly. Sexual harassment of women in the workplace is a real and unhappy issue for many women, and not exactly appropriate material for humor.
The success of Rush Hour has taken black-Asian partnerships one step further towards "looking cool" on screen, an image black-white and white-Asian relations have long enjoyed. While it is doubtful how much one movie alone can impact interracial relationships, the importance of media representations in modern social culture cannot be overemphasized. Real-life white-Asian, white-black, and Asian-black unions do seem to reflect their screen distribution, i.e. there are many black-white couples, many Asian-white couples, but disproportionately few black-Asian couples. Media reflects and distorts current social realities and at the same time reinforces and reshapes them. Asian and black views of each other are partially influenced by the media.