Thomas Pettigrew, a psychologist has observed, "The emotions of prejudice are formed in early childhood, while the beliefs that are used to justify it come later. Later in life you may want to change your prejudice, but it is far easier to change your intellectual beliefs than your deep feelings."
Prejudice is alive and well these days, yet very few films deal with this shadow aspect of our culture. It is disease of the mind in which we project our feelings of self-disgust, anger, alienation, and paranoia on others whom we perceive to be different. We used to believe that prejudice would cease to exist once more educated and enlightened people came into power and leadership. But as Spinning into Butter shows, a large dose of hatred and racial prejudice still exists on college campuses where liberal do-gooders teach and are convinced that they are advocates of ethnic diversity and tolerance. The movie, directed by Mark Brokaw, is based on Rebecca Gilman's 2002 play.
Sarah Daniels (Sarah Jessica Parker) is in her second year as dean of students at Belmont College, a small liberal arts school, which many students attend so they can enjoy the ski slopes in the area. Sarah gets in trouble when she tries to help Patrick Chibas (Victor Rasuk) get a scholarship. In order to appease the committee, she suggests that he describe himself as "Hispanic" or “Puerto Rican” so they will understand that he is a minority student. What Sarah doesn't realize in her effort to do the right thing is that word "minority" is offensive and "people of color" is preferred. Patrick wants to be called "Nyorican" since he is a New Yorker of Puerto Rican ancestry. In her attempt to help a gifted student, she fails miserably and feels guilty.
Racism rears its ugly head at Belmont when someone pins racist notes on the door of Simon Brick (Paul James), an African-American student. The police are called in, and the administrators including the university president (James Rebhorn) and two deans (Miranda Richardson and Beau Bridges) call a campus-wide meaning to discuss racism. They are especially irritated when Aaron Carmichael (Mykelti Williamson), a local African-American reporter, appears on the scene and starts writing reports about the racial incident (it accelerates when a rock is thrown through Brick’s dorm window).
At the film's emotional core are several scenes between Sarah and Aaron as they befriend each other and share experiences. She reveals that she worked as the dean of students at a college in Chicago with an African-American student body. She left when she realized that behind her frustrations with the position and the students was her own deep-seated racism. She found herself thinking of them in stereotypes. She and Aaron also discuss common stereotypes about white people.
Spinning into Butter is a flawed drama that sputters here and there with dialogue that sounds more theatrical than real. But in a time when so many white Americans are congratulating themselves on the election of an African-American president, seeing it as a change in the racial landscape of the country, this spunky film reminds us that plenty of work remains to be done to combat ethnic hatred, labeling and stereotyping. We need to do more than talking about tolerance and acceptance in order to change basic behaviors.