||At one point in this tale of racial conflict on a small liberal-arts college campus in Vermont, the put-upon dean of students played by mousy Sarah Jessica Parker is ordered by an even more clueless administrator (Miranda Richardson) to prepare a “bullet list” of ten steps to end racism. “Spinning Into Butter” seems an equally schematic and hopeless enterprise. Painfully earnest and unrelievedly stilted and cliched, the movie is less a drama than a well-meaning but rather ridiculous diatribe. And the resolution is little more than the equivalent of asking, “Can’t we all just talk about it?” In this case, the answer must be, “Sure, but we’d rather not.”
Parker is Sarah Daniels, the dean at liberal arts Benton College (a stand-in for Bennington, presumably) who’s only recently arrived from an inner-city Chicago campus. Not only is she stuck trying to persuade a bright kid (Victor Rasuk) who categorizes himself as NewYrican (he’s of Puerto Rican background from New York) to change his identification to simple Puerto Rican to secure a scholarship, but she’s called in when a new African-American student, shy, reserved Simon Brick (Paul James), begins receiving anonymous threats—at first racist notes pinned to his dorm door, but later a noose hung outside his window.
The administration, which also includes officious President Winston Garvey (James Rebhorn) and garrulous Dean Burton Strauss (Beau Bridges), tries to handle the matter internally through pointless campus forums, but all their efforts manage to do is exacerbate the situation, and before long the students “of color” (the term they stridently prefer to “minority students”) are up in arms. And the story hits the press after Sarah calls in the Burlington cops and local reporter Aaron Carmichael (Mykelti Williamson), also a recent transplant from Chicago, arrives on the scene. Happily his presence has one benefit, as he hits it off with Sarah, and the two enjoy a tentative, pre-romantic relationship.
The script for “Spinning Into Butter” was adapted by Rebecca Gilman and Doug Atchison from a play by Gilman, and perhaps on stage it had some power. But if so, it’s lost it in transit to the screen. The screenplay descends far too often into PC cliché and heavy-handed sermonizing (especially in a long late-innings “revelatory” dialogue between Sarah and Aaron), and the big surprise at the close—in which the perpetrator is revealed—is neither surprising nor even psychologically credible. All the characters come across—the nitwit administrators in particular, but everyone else too—as stereotypes. And under the clumsy direction of Mark Brokaw, the cast try way too hard, except for Williamson, who brings an agreeably bemused attitude to the proceedings. The result is a picture whose good intentions are crushed by poor execution, one that’s less a persuasive drama than a simple-minded freshman-level lesson about the persistence of the psychological weight that the country’s history of racism still carries in modern America, even (or perhaps especially) among those “liberal” groups who wrongly believe that we’re living in a post-racial age.
Word is that the movie had a difficult shoot, with production interrupted at one point by monetary problems. Technically it’s no better than tolerable, with cinematography by John Thomas that’s barely workmanlike. On the small screen the visual deficiencies would be less noticeable.
And that’s frankly where the movie belongs. Especially if the television monitor is in a classroom.