The 1990s saw a significant shift in pop culture from the hair bands of the late 1980s to grunge and, more noticeably, the emergence of rap and hip-hop culture. Personalities like Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., and Spike Lee made an enormous impact on the country, and directors David Andalman and Mariko Munro chronicle the idolization of hip-hop culture by white kids in their new film Milkshake. While the time period and semi-racist/ridiculous thought process of the film’s main character make for a unique and fairly entertaining experience, Milkshake fails to expand the premise into anything substantial.
Jolie Jolson (Tyler Ross) is a white teenager growing up in the mid 1990s that has an obsession with the “thug life” for all the wrong reasons. Jolson reveres hip-hop culture and wishes desperately that he was black, and he sees making the Varsity basketball team as his ticket to being “thugged out.” He attends a magnet school and tutors a black girl named Henrietta (Shareeka Epps) in his spare time, but while Henrietta’s white adopted father thinks he’s paying Jolie to help his daughter in school, Jolie is in fact having a sexual relationship with the girl, who also happens to be pregnant with another man’s child.
Early on in the film we realize that Jolie’s fascination with black culture is coming from a place of complete misunderstanding, and in voiceover he muses on how disappointing it is that people don’t talk about his great great grandfather, the minstrel performer Al Jolson. Jolie doesn’t think Al’s work as a minstrel performer was racist at all, and likens his own “appreciation” of black culture to Al’s “tribute” to black people.
Ross turns in fine work as Jolie, and it’s a testament to his charmingly naïve performance that we don’t outright despise the character; Ross shows us that Jolie’s desires and opinions, however offensive, always come from a place of sincerity. When Jolie finds out he made the Varsity basketball team, he enthusiastically recalls, “At last I was practically black,” and he admiringly describes Henrietta’s life “an epic Tupac verse.” We follow Jolie’s senior year in high school as he makes fast friends with the all-black basketball team, and while it’s clear that the other characters are fond of Jolie simply because he’s someone they enjoy being around, Jolie sees every get-together and lunchtime with his teammates as him taking another step closer to living the life personified in his favorite hip-hop songs.
Although the premise lends itself to what could be a rather awkward 90 minutes, Andalman and Munro pepper the film with dark humor and a fun score (it sounds like a cross between slow jams and Sega Genesis music) that make Milkshake an entertaining yet ultimately empty watch. There are a couple of short meaningful moments between Jolie and Henrietta that touch on his ignorant racism, but Andalman and Munro don’t seem interested in saying much beyond, “some white kids in the 1990s were kind of racist, and that’s kind of funny.”
Throughout the course of the story’s events, Jolie continues to live what he sees as an ideal “thug life” and we never really dig much deeper into the consequences of his actions. Though Milkshake succeeds in entertaining its audience, the film feels a bit like a missed opportunity given its premise and time period.