It’s logically impossible to convey just how horrifyingly bad Spinning the Butter is. There is absolutely no way to make sense of how the filmmakers managed to snag a cast of recognizable names to make this film. It’s cheap, atrociously acted, and unfathomably dated. It feels like a PSA film created by a high-school yearbook staff in 1987 to show in the school auditorium during racial-awareness week. It addresses racial issues so simplistically and presents them as so profound as to almost become a racist movie itself, like a geriatric junior high teacher gravely warning her students that “coloreds” is no longer an acceptable term of African Americans. Umm. No shit, lady. Welcome to 1961.
Based on a Rebecca Gilman play that must have felt at least 15 years old when it debuted in 1999, Spinning into Butter stars Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah Daniels, the dean of students at a small liberal arts college in Vermont, the second whitest state in the Union (behind only Maine, of course). In her second year in the position, Sarah is thrust into a race controversy at her school when a black kid begins receiving notes on his door addressing him as “Little Sambo,” and later, a noose outside of his dorm room. The incidents prompt a college-wide racial seminar so patronizing as to raise the furor of the small minority population at the college.
Things are further “complicated” when a black reporter (Forrest Gump’s Mykelti Williamson) gets involved — his news reports have the effect of heightening the on-campus tension, which is further exacerbated when a Nuyorican is encouraged by the dean to classify himself as Puerto Rican in order to more easily qualify for a minority-based scholarship. The Nuyorican is outraged.
And that’s it — the complete sum of the developments that propel the narrative forward, like a Matchbox car fueled by self-righteousness. A racist note, a noose, and a racial misclassification. There is no real violence in Spinning into Butter — there are only those three incidents and the awkward campus “debate” that ensues. That debate revolves largely around Sarah’s own issues with race, stemming from her experience as the dean of students at a larger, urban college. Was she assaulted by a black person? Raped? Harmed, or even threatened? No. She had simply become intimidated by a few, isolated “incredibly loud, stinky black people” with “stupid hair.” The movie itself is less about the racist incidents, and more about the dean’s attempts to justify her own racism, but even that gives too much credit to what’s going on here, and how James Rebhorn, Beau Bridges, Miranda Richardson, and even Sarah Jessica Parker got involved is something of a mystery.
And if you doubt the veracity of this review, you need only check out the trailer yourself: