Spinning into Butter

| June 4, 2009

Trailing a host accolades, Rebecca Gilman’s play Spinning into Butter (named one of the best plays of 1999 by Time) has been brought to the big screen with the collaboration of the playwright herself. Usually it is a good sign when the author of a hit play adapts their own creation, but alas, Spinning into Butter is an exception to this rule.
The story centers around a series of increasingly menacing racial threats against a black student on a mostly white college campus in Vermont. Sarah Daniels (Sarah Jessica Parker), the newly hired dean of students, is charged with restoring harmony on the campus but the rest of the senior faculty members soon take control with a string of ineffectual measures that reveal their naïveté and latent prejudices.
As the tension on the campus erupts into total discord, Sarah is paralyzed by her own feelings on racism stemming from her prior experience as dean of students for a mostly black college in Chicago. A burgeoning friendship/flirtation with an aspiring news anchor (Mykelti Williamson) who is investigating the events at the college provides both with a platform to air their repressed views of their own prejudices and frustrations with race. Finally, with all nerves stretched to the breaking point, the eventual discovery of the culprit behind the hate crimes shocks all and provides a final example of the insidious intricacies of misunderstanding and intolerance lingering on all sides of the ethnic divide.
In the role of the conflicted dean of students, Sarah Jessica Parker portrays the character as a self proclaimed idealist although this is belied as she struggles more and more with her own prejudices. The overall effect presents her as one who is ultimately as ineffectual as her peers in dealing with the racial issues on campus. Her fellow faculty members, played by Miranda Richardson, Beau Bridges, Paul James and James Rebhorn, do what they can to breathe life into the caricatures of clueless Caucasian hypocrites while viewers are beaten over the head with stock phrases of disillusionment and resentment from the college students.
Saturated as it is with cliché expressions of racism on both sides (including “I marched on Selma! I fought for you people!”), what could be a compelling story dissolves into an interminable diatribe on the lingering rancor simmering even in people who vigorously defend themselves as paragons of tolerance. For such as acclaimed piece as the play Spinning into Butter, the film generally disappoints as it strikes a preachy, bombastic tone while attempting to explore genuinely interesting issues.

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