Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Campus Drama: Spinning Into Butter

If you do not get the reference in the title of director Mark Brokaw’s debut film, do not let it bother you. It alludes to Helen Bannerman’s racially stereotyped children’s book Little Black Sambo, first published in 1899. That story figures prominently in Mark Brokaw’s Spinning Into Butter (trailer here), a caustic examination of political correctness and racial relations on college campuses, opening this Friday in New York and other select markets.

Belmont College seems idyllic. It has a prestigious reputation and the skiing is good. However, there are tensions stirring beneath the surface of the sleepy Vermont campus, which ignite when African American freshman Simon Brick starts getting threatening racist notes. The administration finds itself in a precarious position, wanting to keep a lid on all the negative publicity, while also using the incident as a politically correct “teaching moment.” Charged with juggling their contradictory goals is Sarah Daniels, the relatively new Dean of Students, played by the ultra-waspy Sarah Jessica Parker.

Whether she likes it or not, Daniels is the administration point person on racial issues. Frankly, Daniels is not really cut out for the position, but since her previous job was at a predominantly African American college, the administration assumes she has special talent “managing diversity.” In fact, she seems to blunder into one P.C. minefield after another, as when she pressures a Nuyorican student to change his official ethnicity to Hispanic for the sake of a scholarship.

The all-campus meetings are a disaster, leaving African American students feeling patronized, white students angry for being categorically demonized as potential racist thugs, and the rest of the student body resenting their exclusion from the “dialogue.” Butter is at its best when skewering the hypocrisy and white liberal guilt of Belmont’s administration. Eventually, things actually do start to get real at those campus forums, when the so-called “affinity houses,” racially exclusive campus housing units, are vilified either as segregation by some minority students or affirmative action set-asides by white students. Even though it degenerates into a brawl, it does qualify as honest “dialogue.”

I have always found Parker to be a cold, charmless screen presence, and her work in Butter is not about to change that. She deserves some credit though for taking on the altogether unsympathetic character of Daniels. Aaron Carmichael, the local investigative reporter, might be the only character Butter lets off the hook, but at least Mykelti Williamson brings a smart, human dimension to the role. Also, character actor James Rebhorn (a fellow Wittenberg University alumnus), is always enjoyable when playing arrogant bureaucrats, like Belmont’s president Winston Garvey. The problem is Butter does so much hedging, it is not clear what it really wants to say about political correctness on campus, beyond “it’s complicated.”

Based on Rebecca Gilman’s Off-Broadway play of the same name, it is clearly doomed to be compared to David Mamet’s Oleanna. Like the earlier play and film, Butter is as confounding as it is intriguing. It opens Friday (3/27) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.