I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better!

Spinning into Butter
Running time 86 minutes
Written by Doug Atchison
and Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Mykelti Williamson, Paul James, Miranda Richardson, Beau Bridges

At a time when political correctness is leading quickly to the death of creative writing and we’re all supposed to be colorblind, Spinning Into Butter, a movie about racism on a college campus, would seem, at first glance, challenging and brave. Good intentions eventually collapse, but for a while, it also manages to resist the danger of absurdity. After all, the time and place is not Mississippi in the 1950s, but the campus of a small liberal arts college in beautiful northern Vermont, present day, where students of every race, creed and political opinion mingle peacefully in a bastion of liberal idealism. Alas, the assumption that people are naturally a bit more sophisticated here turns out to be wrong when a black student named Simon Brick is suddenly threatened by racial epithets hung on his dormitory walls, crude drawings of lynchings and anonymous notes pinned on his door addressed to “Little Black Sambo.” The movie begins with a cartoon of Sambo pursued by those tigers who chase their own tails until they spin into butter. In case you grew up too cultivated to know about this Uncle Remus–like tale, or too highbrow to get the metaphoric significance that hovers over both the campus and the movie, Beau Bridges repeats it in minute detail during an emergency crisis meeting of the white college faculty. The whole thing so unnerves Sarah Daniels (Sarah Jessica Parker), the new dean of students, that before long she is spinning into butter herself.

Before you can hum a single chorus of “Ol’ Black Joe,” everyone in the movie is conflicted beyond the point of recovery. Next, a brilliant Puerto Rican eligible for a $12,000 scholarship awarded only to “an outstanding minority student” refuses to compromise his ideals by filling out his ethnic background on the application as Hispanic, preferring the word “Nuyorican” (which he translates as New York “Rican”). Are these isolated cases of intolerance? Or do they constitute a reflection of dormant issues that have eluded publicity too long in a modern climate of repressed bigotry? It is certainly a hot news story, and although the dean of the college (Miranda Richardson), the dean of humanities (Beau Bridges) and the president of the college (James Rebhorn) try to suppress the incidents by restricting access to the press, all hell breaks loose when a black TV reporter (Mykelti Williamson) arrives on campus, gets too much cooperation from Sarah and breaks it wide open. She’s a well-meaning idealist who wants to right wrongs in an unfair world. He’s an ambitious underdog looking for a big-time network future. Tensions mount.

At mandated student forums, everyone misunderstands everyone else. The all-white faculty insists on being fair, impartial and tolerant. The students of color feel insulted and ghettoized. Violence ensues, dividing the campus. Good intentions are misinterpreted. Plans to bridge the racial gap only backfire. Minorities desert the school like it was the Titanic. The board of trustees turns on the faculty. In a public-relations panic, the administration turns on Sarah. In the heat, she is forced to confront her own hidden feelings of prejudice and question why she left a college in Illinois where the predominantly black student body was rude, loud and threatening, and pursue a different kind of school in New England because it was clean, manicured and … white. When the black reporter and the white teacher sit down and list the clichés on both sides of the race card, their conclusion (“Most people are racist—they just don’t know they’re racists”) is the biggest cliché of all. Plus, it’s just not true. All of this could have been avoided if they had just called in the police­—it takes almost all of the film’s 86 minutes before the racist vandal’s identity is revealed. When you find out who stirred the fudge until it boiled over, the result is more predictable than shocking, and more infuriating than illuminating.

Meanwhile, the film disintegrates into a series of boring, heavy-handed polemics and talky debates about affirmative action that leave you feeling rotten about both the movie and yourself. “Opened up” from a claustrophobic play by Rebecca Gilman that was more of a civics lesson than a passionate seminar for ideas, the film, by first-time director Mark Brokaw, has conviction, but the script (adapted by the playwright, with Doug Atchison) is so strangled by poisonous, confusing issues lacking essential roots in reality that it chokes on its own acid reflux. It sets up the price of its own prejudices until nobody can do anything right. Punch the chads on both sides of this race card, and you’re still a racist either way.

Good acting triumphs throughout, and in the role of the dean, Sarah Jessica Parker does what’s right for the role. She’s been de-glammed with mousy brown hair, ugly, off-the-rack dresses and pale makeup that makes her look like a Poor Pitiful Pearl doll, but her strength never falters, even when she folds her tent and walks away—a disappointing surrender for a woman who could do more for her liberal causes if she stayed put and fought for changes from within. This kind of wimpy see-sawing is true of everything in the movie. Up to the point where it all falls apart and you stop caring about everyone on the screen, it’s good enough that you end up resenting it for not being better. Filmed in 2005, it previewed to hostility and indifference two years later in both Montreal and Cannes, and is just now opening commercially. The title is wrong. They should call it Spinning Into Margarine.

rreed@observer.com

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better!