For decades upon decades, there has been the fascinating phenomenon of white people who “want to be black.” Only, of course, they don’t actually want to be black. They want the apparent cool factor that comes with blackness – the clothes, the music, the rhythm, the permission to use the N-word – without that annoying inconvenience of institutionalized racism.
Directors David Andalman and Mariko Munro tackle this idea in Milkshake, their comedy set in a 1990s suburb of Washington, DC, where white teen Jolie Johnson (Tyler Ross) desperately wants to be a brother.
Jolie, you see, is about that “thug life,” which for him constitutes using black slang, listening to Tupac, wearing baggy jeans, trying to get on his school’s basketball team, and sleeping with a black girl named Henrietta (Shareeka Epps) while her adopted white father thinks the two are merely studying in her bedroom. He’s deeply misguided, of course, at one point revealing in the narration that threads throughout the piece that he wishes more people would appreciate his great-great grandfather Al Jolson. The minstrel performer. To Jolie, his work was simply a “tribute” to African-American performers.
Ross’s wide-eyed naivety makes him likable enough as we watch him finally make the Varsity basketball team and become friends with his all-black teammates (“I was practically black,” he declares), but his general cluelessness is only funny for so long. There’s something slightly off putting about humor that’s derived mainly from watching white people supposedly “act black,” or “talk black” – it’s a punchline that get’s especially old when it has nothing more substantial to anchor it. In this case, that insubstantiality comes from an ultimately hollow third act.
Miraculously and with very little lead-up Jolie suddenly realizes that stereotypes are bad, that the black experience is not in fact an “epic Tupac verse” but something complex and varied, as the entire human experience is. How he comes to that final, seemingly profound conclusion feels rushed and slightly insincere, as moments where he actually confronts race head-on are few and always very brief, barely scratching the surface of his ignorance.
Milkshake does have its charm, but that’s mostly dependant on ‘90s nostalgia, a great soundtrack, and an endearing performance by its lead actor. Ultimately, though, it leaves the viewer wishing there had been a bit more substance between the laughs.