“Higher Learning” has a great many things on its mind, which immediately places it in a rather exclusive category of American films these days. John Singleton’s third feature is concerned with such matters as group think, individuality, the importance of education, political correctness, sexual identity, labels, personal responsibility and, overwhelmingly and unavoidably, racial tension. It also becomes dramatically sidetracked by an odd fascination with its most extreme story element, to the unfortunate detriment of the complex mosaic of contemporary culture it initially lays out. Young audiences will find a good deal to sink their teeth into here, which should spell decent initial winter biz for this timely, if naggingly uneven, piece.
Focusing mostly on members of an incoming freshman class at fictitious Columbus University, Singleton at the outset pushes the issue of polarizing multiethnicity to the forefront, defining people, and setting them at odds, initially by their tastes in music: The whites can’t stand the rap the blacks play at full volume, while the blacks can’t abide “hillbilly music.” Teenagers of different races thrown together as roommates are supposed to learn to tolerate one another but otherwise stick to their own kind in a sort of Balkanization of the campus.
While juggling the experiences of nearly a dozen characters through at least the first half, pic takes a heightened interest in three students: Malik (Omar Epps), a politically unformed black runner on a sports scholarship; Kristen (Kristy Swanson), a naive white girl from Orange County who gets a rude awakening at school; and Remy (Michael Rapaport), a social misfit from Idaho who feels threatened by all the minorities he’s confronted with for the first time.
As he did in “Boyz N the Hood,” Singleton uses Laurence Fishburne as the voice of wisdom. The fine actor here plays Professor Maurice Phipps, a ferociously articulate and demanding political science teacher whose overriding objective is getting apathetic kids to think for themselves. At first, Malik feels that Phipps picks on him, but Phipps will not condescend to indulge the young man and, of course, ends up inspiring him. Malik’s early doubts about his enthusiasm for track are turned around by foxy runner Monet (Regina King), with whom he soon starts training on the field and at home.
By contrast, Kristen’s self-awareness comes through painful personal experience. Falling in with a fraternity crowd, this rather dim Southern California beauty launches her college career by getting drunk and date-raped. Resulting trauma sees her being consoled by earth-motherly lesbian Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), who runs a women’s org called Students for a Non-Sexist Society. Kristen’s subsequent sexual uncertainty is vividly conveyed in one of the film’s most stylistically intriguing sequences, which has her expressing her hesitancy and feelings to Taryn and would-be b.f. Wayne (Jason Wiles), who interchange places in bed with her seemingly within the same shot.
It’s with Remy’s story, however, that the film gets into trouble. Unable to fit in with any of the various cliques on campus, this loner falls in with a tiny band of white supremacists who read aloud from “Mein Kampf” and stir up Remy’s previously unconscious resentment of anyone unlike him.
As one of many character sketches on a broad canvas, this would have been OK. But in the final act, Singleton narrows his focus almost exclusively to Remy and his black adversaries. The scenes featuring the Aryan Nation disciples are presented with heavy shadows and menacing music unlike anything else in the picture, and when Remy takes to the campus, rifle in hand, with the intention of shooting a black person in order to prove his commitment to his buddies, all nuance and complexity is canceled out by this resort to extremes and undue melodrama.
The easiest way to end a film is to pull out a gun and kill somebody; unfortunately, Singleton could not find a more dramatically inventive conclusion to his story, a way of resolving things that would keep the dialogue going rather than stopping it with a bullet. Finally, blaming national racial strife on a handful of neo-Nazis seems terribly simplistic and unhelpful to an in-depth analysis of a complicated issue.
Despite this dramatic derailment, “Higher Learning” still packs a fair amount of power thanks to the force of the ideas being discussed and the tough environment in which students must now define themselves and attempt to get an education. Rather than a privileged sanctuary where lofty intellectual ideals can be pursued before assuming adult responsibilities, college here seems more like boot camp for the real world, a treacherous jungle where every inhabitant is identified first by racial stripe rather than by personal attributes.
Cast is solid, with Epps, Swanson and Rapaport ably registering their immature characters’ questioning, hurt and doubt without actually plumbing psychological depths. Ice Cube scores effectively as a perennial undergraduate who functions as a sort of attitudinal guru and confrontational activist for the younger blacks on campus. Newcomer King is perky and appealing as the lovely, can-do runner who instills Malik with competitive and amorous ambition, and Cole Hauser displays an intriguing way with line readings as the skinhead who recruits Remy.
Puffing his pipe behind a beard and spectacles and intoning his pronouncements with a West Indian accent, Fishburne is all commanding charisma as the wise prof who tells Malik, “You must rid yourself of the attitude that the world owes you something.”
Pic has the look of verisimilitude as far as campus life is concerned, and track is alive with the sound of 28 tunes.