Spinning Into Butter

"Spinning" Out Of Control In The Lexicon Of Race
By Omar P.L. Moore/    SHARE
Friday, March 27, 2009

Sarah Jessica Parker as Belmont College's Dean of Students Sarah Daniels, in "Spinning Into Butter", based on Rebecca Gilman's Broadway play and directed by theater
director Mark Brokaw, who makes his feature film directing debut.  The film opened today in New York, Boston, D.C. and Los Angeles.  (Photo: Screen Media Films)

You are a white woman.  You're in a bus.  You are tired after a hard day's work.  There is only one seat available.  On either side of the vacant seat sits a black man.  You:

a)  sit down, grateful to be able to rest your weary body
b)  are fearful, but sit down anyway
c)  choose to remain standing

Let's say that you don't sit down.  This is because you:

a)  are afraid or nervous, likely to clutch your handbag tightly
b)  are racist
c)  have had a bad experience with black men on the bus before
d)  are typically apprehensive around black men   
e)  aren't as tired as you thought you were

It is night.  You are walking down a sidewalk and are the only one walking on it.  Absolutely no one else is around.  Suddenly in the distance you see a black man walking down the same sidewalk, and towards you.  Instantly, you:

a)  crossover to the other side of the street because he's black
b)  keep walking until you pass the man, looking back to make sure he isn't following you
c)  cross the street because you are concerned for your safety 

If you are white and liberal, you are

a)  more likely to be racist than a white conservative might be
b)  less likely to be racist than a white conservative might be
c)  not racist at all
d)  more likely to be dishonest about your true feelings about blacks
e)  doing your part to educate fellow whites in your neighborhood against being racist
f)   always raising objections if and when a friend of yours (white or black) uses a racial epithet in your presence
g)  wondering where on earth the questions posed to blacks are in this quiz

You see a black man and a white woman walking together holding hands.  You:

a)  feel angry
b)  stare at them
c)  are curious
d)  are hostile and deliberately try to make them feel uncomfortable
e)  wish that they weren't holding hands
f)   notice them and keep walking, minding your own business
g)  later realize that they were your friends but you talk or gossip negatively about them behind their backs to your other friends

If you are black and dating or married to someone white, you are:

a)  a sellout
b)  a self-hating black person
c)  abandoning your race
d)  a lover of all things white
e)  in love
f)   in it for curiosity's sake

When alone or amongst people of different races you are more likely to:

a)  make an offensive joke using racial code words
b)  talk about drug dealers and gangs as a deliberate reference to blacks
c)  say or think that people who talk about racism are too sensitive and emotional
d)  ask someone black in a supermarket if they work there, without caring whether they actually do or not
e)  do none of the above, because racism is a thing of the past -- we've got a black president right now
f)   do none of the above, as I don't spend any time thinking about race or racism

Black people who use the "n"-word are:

a)  crazy
b)  setting the race back hundreds of years
c)  definitely lacking any self-respect
d)  in no position to tell someone white not to use the "n"-word
e)  cannot get offended when someone white uses it
f)   all of the above
g)  just exercising their right to freedom of speech

You've just read the questions above.  You think they are:

a) unfair, offensive and simplistic
b) racist, self-righteous and polarizing
c) ridiculous, divisive and paranoid
d) making you uncomfortable
e) a waste of time and irrelevant to the review you are about to read

So in America how does one begin to talk about racism and race?  By using the multiple choice examples above?  By shouting?  By just unloading all of the pent-up thoughts and feelings about the subject of race out loud and in mixed, not polite, company?  Or by keeping the hate and mistrust and fear of offending locked deep inside, so that at some point in an unguarded moment it spills out?  How does one talk about race and racism brutally honestly in social circles, if at all?

Do you talk openly to your black friend about how you feel about the questions above?  Do you talk to your white friend about how you feel?  Do you care?  How do you feel about affirmative action?  The film "Spinning Into Butter", which opened today in New York City at the Sunshine Cinemas (also opened today in select theaters in Los Angeles, D.C. and Boston) provides moderately provocative discussions on race and racism, though making strange use of a quote from poet and author Maya Angelou which opens the film.  "Spinning Into Butter", written by Rachel Gilman and Doug Atchison and based on Ms. Gilman's acclaimed Broadway play of the same name, follows Ms. Angelou's quote with a racist stereotypical cartoon that is offensive, grotesque and disturbing. 

Though filmed in New York and New Jersey, the story in "Spinning" is set in the state of Vermont on the campus of Belmont College, its population mirroring the predominantly white state.  A racial incident has occurred in the film's early moments.  Someone posts the written note "Little Black Sambo" on a dorm room door which happens to belong to a black student, one of the few on the campus.  Belmont's school's administrators (led by Miranda Richardson, a one-note character here,) go into full defensive mode, concerned more with maintaining Belmont's image as a fine upstanding college than getting to the bottom of the racial incident.  They use a band-aid approach that's more condescending than condemning, more ameliorative of white guilt than of any affirmative measures to prevent racial attacks on the student populace.  Dean of Students Sarah Daniels (Sarah Jessica Parker) cries foul, and soon delves deep into her own feelings about the incident as well as racial attitudes.  Her sounding board is a Burlington, Vermont television news reporter Aaron Carmichael (Mykelti Williamson), a black man whose own opinions about race make him a flawed entity as he reports on the incident and spiraling racial tensions on the Belmont campus.  There's romantic tension between Sarah (formerly a teacher at a Chicago high school) and Aaron, and their dialogues are interesting yet ridiculous, especially in one scene, though Sarah opens up about race in an honest way.

The film's title refers to the infamous children's story of the racially offensive "Little Black Sambo", which chronicles tigers chasing after the demeaning caricature named "Sambo", looking to take his clothes, they take them and chase each other to be the sole holder of all of the clothes so vigorously and in circles until they are a blur and melt into butter, which the naked title character scoops up and eats with a spoon.  "Spinning Into Butter" makes a weak and unconvincing connection to the "Sambo" story, apart from some references to it by several characters.

"Spinning Into Butter", excellent for the first hour, begins to backslide horrendously, exposing a trapdoor in preposterous fashion, resembling the headlines of a high-profile event over two decades ago that was gravely mischaracterized.  Some will wonder what the purpose of "Spinning Into Butter" is, other than to provoke outrage or discussion.  (It does both.)  The film hoists racial balkanization high up on a petard and then torpedoes it to smithereens almost overnight.  The film's situations feel staged (it was helmed by theater director Mark Brokaw, making his feature film directing debut), lacking a depth that the weight of the subject matter demands.  (For those who think that racist incidents on college campuses in America are a thing of the past, look back less than 18 months ago to October 2007, when a hangman's noose was found on the door of a black professor's office at Columbia University in multicultural New York City.) 

"Spinning Into Butter" would have excelled if its lead character Sarah wasn't the conscience of the film.  The film should instead have focused on the tensions between the students and mined them instead of making a film about people reacting to race and racism -- it should have just played out the racial tensions and issues as they laid, without the filtering and subjectivism.  John Singleton's "Higher Learning" (1995) did this to a small extent but exposed white racism in a caricatured, cartoonish way that made audiences laugh not ponder.  In Mr. Brokaw's film there's a duality of exposed conscious and subconscious in all of the characters when it comes to race and racism, and this is the only effective aspect of "Spinning Into Butter". 

Mr. Brokaw's film could be watched in conjunction with "Bamboozled" and "Do The Right Thing", two electrifying Spike Lee films, though the new film lacks the power or provocative nature of those titles.  Here, there are cliches, polarized responses, musings about black people who utter the "n"-word, and white characters who justify and attempt to authenticate their inoculation from charges of being racist by explaining their roles in the marches in Selma, Alabama with Dr. King in the 1960s.  "Ancient history!", one student shouts in response. 

Of all the actors involved, Ms. Parker is good here in a dramatic role, a refreshing departure, working effectively as Sarah, the lone idealist in the administrative echelons of Belmont.  Sarah's trying to escape and avoid talking about race, but she finds herself compelled to do so.  At least she doesn't make herself so ridiculous as to say that some of her best friends are black.  Perhaps Sarah read then-Senator Barack Obama's February 2008 speech in Philadelphia about race before he gave it (the film was shot back in late 2005.) 

If nothing else, "Spinning Into Butter" will have you talking, if not fuming in anger.

With: Beau Bridges, James Rebhorn, Paul James and Victor Rasuk.

"Spinning Into Butter" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language.  It also contains racial violence and racist epithets and offensive racial imagery.  The film's duration is one hour and 26 minutes.

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