Spinning Into Butter
School's in at Geraldo U.
Any movie that opens with a quotation from Maya Angelou, follows that with a clip from an old racist cartoon, cuts to someone posting a racial slur on a dorm room door, then immediately serves up Sarah Jessica Parker as dean of students wants to get on your nerves. By that measure, "Spinning Into Butter" counts as some kind of success.
Adapted by Rebecca Gilman and Doug Atchison from her 1999 play, the film is set on the campus of Vermont's fictitious Belmont College, the sort of liberal-arts paradise where every day is the first day of fall and nothing bad ever happens. So imagine the shock when one black student - his name, metaphor lovers, is Simon Brick, for his soul is so heavy - finds himself the object of hate crimes.
Dean Parker, so prone to sticking her Manolo Blahnik in her mouth, wants to call the police. One Belmont professor and the college dean - played by blustering Beau Bridges and a comically tense Miranda Richardson, respectively - want to hold campus-wide discussion forums. But at these events, the non-white students are miffed that they don't get to talk. The broadcast media arrives in the form of the attractive Mykelti Williamson, who makes suggestive eye contact with Dean Parker faster than you can say "Jungle Fever." He tries to get her to open up about her past, which involves work at an all-black school where Something Happened - although, trust me, it's not what you think.
Meanwhile, the undergrads are restless - the ones who aren't rotten with complacency. "We don't want to be ghettoized," says a black student. "That's where you belong," says a white one. Everyone keeps calling this place Belmont College, but the flagrant urge to offend suggests Geraldo Rivera University. Professor Bridges defensively pours the words "you people" on a mixed crowd and ignites a race riot. The white students have lantern jaws. The black ones haven't brushed their hair (they keep it so real). The TV reporter, after exhibiting so much self-confidence with Dean Parker, develops an inferiority complex: "Maybe you don't like black guys," he tells her. Or maybe she doesn't like caricatures of them. Who can say?
The esteemed stage director Mark Brokaw makes his movie debut here, but if I were he, I'd just keep bragging about all my theatrical success. The haphazard camera work (why so many crane shots and canted angles?), one-dimensional acting, and student-film staging create the wrong environment to manage such an inflammatory subject. It's taken Parker her whole career to commit such acting cliches as popping awake after a nightmare into a sliver of fake moonlight. She can now check that off her to-do list.
It's unclear what "Spinning Into Butter" wants to tell us about racism on college campuses, except that it exists. The movie verges on melodrama, farce, and satire, but never makes any dramatic sense. Nor does it demonstrate any psychological or racial curiosity. It's also woefully out-of-date, awaiting theatrical release for years, and based on an incident from the early 1980s. Despite all the hyperventilating, the movie fails to consider what these crimes mean when, say, the residents of the White House happen to be black. The filmmakers recognize that identity politics are often a trap door. But it's one they're helpless to save themselves from falling through.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.