Higher Learning

(USA - 1995)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rapaport, Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Connelly, Tyra Banks, Regina King, Jason Wiles, Cole Hauser, Busta Rhymes, Kari Wuhrer, Bridgette Wilson
Genre: Drama
Director: John Singleton
Screenplay: John Singleton
Cinematography: Peter Lyons Collister
Composer: Stanley Clarke
Runtime: 127 minutes

"We need to get past just complaining about university security. You know? I'm tired of hearing women cry for someone else to save them. Think what that means. Why do you need someone else to save you? Think about saving yourself" - Taryn

Higher Learning is a call to action. It's a film that shows people will be products of the system and their environment unless they choose to do something about it. It is wisely set on a college campus, the place where most people learn about what they will do in their adult life to try to better the world or usually to just scrape out a living. The university is named after Columbus, which is a fitting considering the movie that tries to break down the great American myths and show life for what it is and could be.

Life as it is on this campus is not good; it's a battleground between the races and sexes. It's exaggerated, but in a way that allows for points to be made quicker and easier. The film is loaded with situations where people act in a manner that's ridiculous to all but them and their group. Kristen Conner (Kristy Swanson) won't give Wayne (Jason Wiles) a Women for a Non Sexist Society flier because he's a man. Fudge (Ice Cube) disciplines Billy (Jay R. Ferguson) because he was disrespectful to a black woman, not because he raped Kristen. Even after Remy (Michael Rapaport) goes into sniper mode, the campus police Rodney King Malik Williams (Omar Epps) and let Remy go because all they see is a black man beating the crap out of a white man. John Singleton is showing that much maligned environments such as The Hood are not the only ones that shape people for the worse and do a poor job of teaching them how to act.

The film focuses on three freshman (Epps, Swanson, & Rapaport) entering this less than ideal new world, but shows how their actions are largely determined by the less naïve people who regularly surround them. Although Singleton uses familiar characters, it's important to point out that they he gives them depth and dimension because they are there to examine and question.

The main character, Malik, is a cocky African American track star that thinks everyone has it easier than him. He feels that the world owes him something, but almost everyone in it will work to hold him down. Epps has made a living portraying one type of athlete or another, but this is probably his best work because he creates a character that can be very accurate and likeable one minute, but totally juvenile and wildly frustrating the next. He struggles throughout the movie, but like the Fredrick Douglas quote used here says, "without struggle there is no progress." Malik really grows up a lot because the three main people around him are good influences.

In one of his most memorable roles, Laurence Fishburne subtly and cleverly plays Professor Maurice Phipps. Phipps is a no b.s. man of great wisdom that treats everyone equally and judges everyone by their output. Phipps believes you can change things for the better if you exercise your rights; if instead of making excuses they spend your time developing a plan and figuring out how you can see it through. He doesn't preach or try to decide what people should do; he presents a situation and then gets each individual to use their knowledge, background, and experience to decide how they should handle it. It should be noted that he's the only professor in the movie, and we rarely even see his classroom. The reason for this is that the campus society, the groups of similars banded together against one another, are the key element that molds each new class. Phipps knows how to guide students in the right direction, but he's the lone combatant against this stratified senselessness.

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Another positive influence on Malik surprisingly comes is Ice Cube's character Fudge. I say that because Fudge initially seems like a big-mouthed punk slacker that will never graduate. Fudge is not the kind of person you want to room with. He does what he wants whenever he wants; he's incredibly selfish and inconsiderate to anyone who isn't in his group. He is at odds with the world, but he knows exactly why and is able to convey this knowledge. Although not nearly as memorable, Cube is in the vein of Woody Harrelson: capable of playing one type of character really well but hardly a chameleon. John Singleton is the director who launched his career though, and he knows what he is and isn't capable of. One of Fudge's messages is that you have the right to be treated equal. Fudge has no fear of the campus police; he empowers himself by stating what the whites are getting away with at the same time they are bothering him. It's okay if his party is broken up, as long as the white's party that's in plain vision is too. What Malik takes from him though is that he should learn for his own benefit. The point of learning is to improve yourself, not to satisfy some professor or earn a number. His message is similar to Phipps prove it to yourself not for someone else, and it's no coincidence why their messages are very similar even though their style of spreading the word is much different.

Malik's girlfriend Deja (Tyra Banks) also teaches him a lot. Beyond how to write a paper, she shows him that everyone has problems and no one has it easy. She tells him to fight with his head rather than his fist. Fudge does this too, looking down on a Nazi beatdown because it didn't accomplish anything. Although Malik is ultimately unable to do it during the movie, we get the idea that he will be able to fight with his head in the future.

The college life of the incredibly naïve Kristen gets off to a terrible start because she chooses the wrong friends and hanging out with them puts her in a bad situation. Her original friends (Kari Wuhrer, who if not for the scars Dr. Hackenstein leaves would be totally hot again now that she had her hideous plastic removed after it encapsulated, and Bridgitte Wilson) don't protect her even though they can tell she needs it. Instead, when she's drunk off her ass, they let her go with an intoxicated horny sorority guy named Billy, who rapes her. Luckily, she remembers Taryn (Jennifer Connelly) was very interested in her safety and wanted her to come to a Students for a Non Sexist Society meeting.

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The statement Jennifer Connelly effects men would draw no argument unless it was said to someone who was delusional or never heard of her. Unfortunately, the statement Jennifer Connelly with her physical beauty totally downplayed affects men would certainly not be greeted with such universal acceptance. This is not a film where you notice she can't see her own feet, but if there was any doubt her appeal goes far beyond physical she totally erases it. Starting with Of Love and Shadows (an exceptional performance that should have got her award nominations even if the film was mediocre and undermined by, among other things, a plot that didn't go anywhere), we almost always see someone with worthwhile things to say and do. In spite of minimal screen time, Connelly gives her most beautiful performance up to that point in time. Her character is extremely sensitive, delicate, caring, comforting, and understanding. Kristen is too scared to even talk at the first meeting, but Taryn quickly turns her into a force on the campus by giving her options and confidence. It is true that Taryn's Students for a Non Sexist Society group is reverse sexism, just like Remy later makes a point that Black Panthers were reverse racism. However, Kristen is shown as a positive force because she's trying to change an inequality-laden society where almost every rapist is a man.

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One of the key messages of the film is to make your own decisions free of other people's influence. The key characteristic of Taryn is she doesn't put any pressure on Kristen. Taryn is a lesbian and she is sexually interested in Kristen from the moment she sees her, but she won't make any advances unless she knows Kristen wants her to. There's a pureness in the way Connelly hugs Swanson when Swanson tells her about the rape that tells you her comforting is totally sincere and there's no sexual gratification to the act. When Kristen realizes the option is there and becomes interested, Taryn actually deters her. It's something Taryn wants, but Taryn doesn't have the typical mindset. It can only be good for Taryn if it's also good for Kristen, and for that to happen Kristen must be sure it's something she really wants to try and is ready for. This is not a pro lesbian movie or an anti lesbian movie because John Singleton is saying everyone should be treated equally regardless of their sexual preference or whatever else makes us different. It's says sex should be consenting and shouldn't be something someone is rushed into, but it's not going to judge a mutual decision that isn't harmful to anyone else. Kristen winds up choosing a man that seems good for her, Wayne, so the movie uses Taryn as a tool to give Kristen the strength, courage, and understanding to get over the rape and return to pursuing a heterosexual existence. She shows her that she can be at ease having sex now that she's taken control of her life and knows how and when to go about it. The strength of Connelly's performance is such though that we don't believe Kristen can possibly find a man that is so good for her, so selfless and devoted to Kristen's betterment and improvement.

Remy is not lucky enough to find good role models on campus. He is one of those people that doesn't seem to fit in anywhere because he doesn't do much, especially well, or understand much. Also, he is really annoying even though he doesn't try to be. He bounces around from place to place until he's recruited by a Neo-Nazi group led by Scott Moss, played chillingly by Cole Hauser. Remy allows himself to be brainwashed because the Nazis are the only group that accepts him and offer him brotherhood. They teach him hate, so when pushed Remy only knows how to respond with irrational words and violence. What makes Rapaport's performance so good is Remy's insecurity, confusion, and fear always shine through when he's acting in this manner. He doesn't truly believe in what he's doing, but he lacks someone to lead him in the right direction or show him what to believe in. The violence comes from him because he feels he has to prove something to his brothers and they pressure him into it. Unlike Kristen, who sees her "friends" side with her rapist because she's with a group of blacks that are disciplining him, he realizes he's with the wrong people too late.

When tensions on campus, particularly between the blacks and Nazis, start to peak, Kristen organizes a peace day that focuses on commonality to try to alleviate the friction between the different colors, creeds, and sexes. It doesn't work out in any sense, but the point of the movie is not that you will change the world tomorrow if you simply make the effort. You can make your best attempt and, for circumstances under your control or out of your control, it may not help at all. The point Singleton is making is that there's no chance you can help if you don't do anything, and to not do anything is to accept an unjust world.

Singleton exploded onto the scene in '91 with Boyz N the Hood, the definitive movie about black youths coming of age on the mean streets of inner city America. The film, featuring an even more remarkable performance by Fishburne as the stern disciplinarian trying to raise Cuba Gooding Jr., was almost universally well-received and led to Singleton becoming both the youngest director and the first black director to get an Oscar nomination for Best Director. After this, he continued making movies with important messages that made money, but none of them seemed to generate near the interest or find a wide audience like the first. Then he made a new version of a movie that didn't need to be remade and or say much that needed to be said, Shaft, so of course that rocked all his previous endeavors at the box office. Hollywood is not the system Singleton is speaking about in Higher Learning, but his key system points apply. The more you know about the system the more upset you get, but also the more you can do to try to change it. First and foremost, don't pay for the shit they keep trying to force on us. Anyway, of his movies since Hood, Higher Learning is by far Singleton's best. It's often misunderstood, but really it's not that far off from the quality of Hood. It's not quite as dramatic, but has no less depth or thoughtfulness.

The biggest problem with the film is that you can't examine a whole campus in just over two hours. It's a far better film for giving the secondary characters life, especially since in Fishburne and Connelly you have actors far superior to the stars they are influencing and Cube & Hauser also have enough time to make themselves memorable. The events are so overly condensed though, with the many secondary characters appearing when they are about to become important and then disappearing into the vastness of the campus. That's understandable since the film is presenting college life through the eyes of the three freshmen rather than the camera. That said, the freshman do change quickly without little time for the audience to contemplate their actions.

The big criticism of the film is that the course of action Remy takes makes the film unrealistic. Well, it's true that this is not as realistic as Hood, but it's not supposed to be. It's trying to motivate its audience to get off their ass and do something. It's main audience is blacks, but Singleton understands the whole campus and splits the time so both literally and figuratively his film has value for everyone if they choose to see it. The violence, which probably heats up too quickly in the interest of time, accentuates the themes of course of action (the relationship between Remy and Malik is one wrong one after another) and the difference between being around the right people and the wrong people. It serves a much greater purpose though, it shows that when the environment changes, people can change with it.

When Kristen first sees Malik in the elevator, she sees his skin color and thinks he's going to steal from her. Malik wasn't so anti-white at this point, but after all he goes through with Remy and the Nazi's he starts seeing all whites, even his former roommate Wayne who was a slob but not an unhelpful and uncaring one, as evil supremacists. It takes the violence to get these two to see beyond their colors and be able to talk to and even comfort one another. Singleton does give this his slant because we can tell Kristin doesn't remember their first meeting, but Malik does.  He's saying the blacks shouldn't forget the oppression, but if the whites are willing to change then the blacks have to accept it graciously because it's progress for them. As much as Taryn does for Kristen to make her into her own woman and give her the confidence to try to change things for the better, the film makes a point at the end of showing that she still needs comfort. This points out that change will not be easy and can't be done alone. There will be many trials and tribulations, but if people empower themselves with knowledge, pull together, and pick each other up then they'll have the confidence to persevere.

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