Race is such a hot-button issue that it's virtually impossible to have an honest discussion about it in a formal or institutional setting. One on one, absolutely - but the past is too fraught with mistakes and the present is too full of people who are either insensitive or overly sensitive, scrutinizing everything for the veiled insult.
Not that racism isn't a problem; it's just not always the problem. Sometimes people are just jerks.
The worst response, of course, is the institutional reaction, which invariably is an overreaction that's long on appearance and short on substance. To the institution, it's about the appearance of caring - "We'll appoint a committee to examine the problem" - more than the response itself.
That's at least part of what's at work in Spinning into Butter, a film adaptation of Rebecca Gilman's play of the same name. There's been a hate crime at a private New England college - what does the administration intend to do about it?
In this case, it's an exercise in CYA, as opposed to TCB. As dean of students Sarah Daniels (Sarah Jessica Parker) quickly learns that, when the administration decides on a course of action - aside from trying to keep it from the press - it means calling an all-campus forum, at which the faculty members speak and students listen.
Sarah wants to see herself as the common-sense liaison between students and administration, but she runs into problems almost immediately over a bit of ethnic terminology. She's trying to help a student named Patrick Chibas (Victor Rasuk) get a scholarship that's reserved for minority students. But he self-identifies as "Nuyorican." That's a term the scholarship committee doesn't recognize, she tells him, rolling her eyes to indicate she's on his side. But he hears it as an attack - she has to talk fast to convince him that calling himself Puerto Rican is just playing the game to get the scholarship and not an insult to his heritage.
When the hate crimes begin - all directed at a single black student - the administration scrambles to contain the damage, without ever actually taking time to talk to the student himself beyond Sarah's interaction with him. As she tries to both protect the student and actually do something meaningful, she runs into a couple of walls.
One has to do with the school itself and its superficial attempts to create a diverse student body after years of essentially being a white enclave. That's why Sarah was hired: because her last position was at an inner-city community college in Chicago. Having failed at actually hiring a black dean, the college figures that, by hiring Sarah, it's getting the next best thing: someone who knows how to work with minority students.
But that's the other wall. Sarah came to this job because she was trying to get away from minority students. As one of the few white faces in her previous school, she felt alienated, intimidated - in short, she was forced to confront her own attitudes about race. She didn't like what she found: a blend of fear and intolerance, based on the cultural differences she perceived.
Spinning into Butter (the title refers to the children's story, Little Black Sambo, a touchstone of the hate crime) is probably too schematic, too much a stage play to work as a movie. Ultimately it's about face-to-face discussions - long ones - between characters, getting at the root of their feelings about race (or, more often, not saying what they mean). And its ending is still jarringly improbable.
But Parker, with her sunny smile and assured demeanor, makes a terrific audience surrogate because her ultimate revelations are so at odds with what the viewer expects from her. In a long scene with Mykelti Williamson (as a TV reporter who befriends her), she reveals her own bitterness and, in the process, may force the audience to confront its own reactions to the dilemmas raised in the script.
Where Gilman and director Mark Brokaw excel is in the scenes of the self-satisifed faculty. Played by a strong group of actors - including Beau Bridges, Miranda Richardson and Peter Friedman (with James Rebhorn as the college president), they are imperious and out of touch as they decide among themselves how best to deal with the students - and brittle and scared when confronted with the angry students themselves and their splintered set of complaints.
Ultimately, Spinning into Butter tries to dramatize the problems of a society in which people talk at each other, rather than with each other. Suddenly, all anyone hears are code words, not context. Voices are raised, tempers flare and communication ends. And that's where the trouble always begins.
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