We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Think Crash was contrived? That 2004 Oscar-winner was a master class in subtlety compared to Spinning Into Butter, Mark Brokaw’s adaptation of a play about race relations that the freshman director underlines, italicizes, and bolds just in case you’ve missed any of its already heavy-handed ideas. It’s fine to open with a Maya Angelou quote, and perhaps even to run a Little Black Sambo cartoon with the credits. But did Brokaw then have to repeatedly freeze and zoom in on Sambo while dramatic music plays? The story takes place at a liberal and largely lily-white Vermont college and centers on a succession of hate crimes against Simon (Paul James), a new, diffident black student. (The first incident? A note taped to Simon’s door labeled little black sambo.) The school’s top administrators (James Rebhorn and Miranda Richardson, themselves cartoons) turn to the dean of students, Sarah Daniels (Sarah Jessica Parker), to keep the peace by setting up lip-service all-campus meetings and shooing away television reporters like Aaron Carmichael (Mykelti Williamson). But Sarah recognizes Aaron, who’s black, fromwhen they both worked in Chicago—flashbacks indicate that Sarah’s last school comprised mostly minority students—and doesn’t agree with her superiors’ dismissive attitude anyway. So she tries to make a difference! Parker is dowdied and brunet here (though, weirdly, blond on the film’s poster) yet still very much Carrie Bradshaw, all spitfire, outspokenness, and “I-had-to-wonder” philosophizing. Yet she and Williamson’s Aaron are the only ones who pass as actual human beings. From the staff to the students, everyone’s a ball of anger waiting to burst the maddening constraints of political correctness, from the kid who doesn’t understand why “Nuyorican” isn’t an acceptable ethnicity on a scholarship application to the president who introduces a prayer as “a nondenominational statement of universal spirituality.” After a series of hair-triggered screaming matches about how everybody really hates everybody else, the film finally settles into something resembling an honest discussion about race when Sarah confesses to Aaron why she left Chicago. It’s ugly, it’s raw, but it feels absolutely truthful, unlike the Whac-A-Stereotype game that precedes it.