I first saw John Singleton’s Higher Learning when I was 17. Back in 1995, my friend and I left the theater feeling like we had seen an important commentary on American society. We felt informed. It just goes to show you how clueless teenagers are. At 23, I rented the movie again and realized that I had no idea what the hell Singleton was talking about. Certainly, a lot of big issues are broached in the movie: racism, sexuality, democracy, college education and its value. Higher Learning poses a lot of issues, but rarely does it offer any meaningful answers.
The movie takes place at the fictional Columbus University, where we meet the world’s oldest freshmen class, which includes a track star (Omar Epps); a wide-eyed innocent (Kristy Swanson); a troubled loner (Michael Rapaport) and a sensitive guy (Jason Wiles). As the first semester unravels, the students will undergo a series of emotional struggles that will change their lives forever.
The plot would all mean something if Singleton offered his characters any engaging conflicts–they all seem recycled from movies of the week. Swanson gets raped and starts hanging out with a lesbian student activist (Jennifer Connelly). Epps rants and raves about black oppression to his professor and girlfriend. In response to seemingly being insulted by Ice Cube and Busta Rhymes, Rapaport becomes a skinhead.
And the most maddening thing is that Singleton seems reluctant to tackle the issues his characters endure. He’s like a bad TV anchorman—he sticks to the highlights and avoids the background. Epps’ rage is actually handled well, as he finds himself mulling different points of view. However, I’m still not sure how the campus skinheads managed to pick Rapaport out of the entire student population, or what pushed Swanson to joining Connelly’s activist ways.
The one subject Singleton seems to know a lot about is that white people simply can’t be trusted, which is alarming considering the movie’s goal toward understanding. At least twice, white security cops assault Epps, thinking he’s the suspect in a campus crime.
I’m not naïve. There are white people who are prejudiced against black people, as much as I’d like to think differently. But in Higher Learning the white characters create all the problems. They rape, they kill, they show little emotional growth. Aside from so many people from The Program having lead roles, it’s probably the most distressing presence in a movie that should be more about peace, love and understanding.
Review by Pete Croatto © 2001 filmcritic.com