MOVIES: 'HIGHER LEARNING' Singleton's vision transcends divisions Reviewed by Jason Knight With his new film "Higher Learning," John Singleton-"Boyz in the Hood," "Poetic Justice"-made the movie so many of us would like to make. He did it imperfectly, but then I can't think of anyone who could have done it better. The film's biggest flaw, which the viewer should be prepared for, is that it has few characters, but many caricatures. When people see these representations of themselves, they aren't satisfied. But for Singleton to have developed his characters in greater detail, he would have had to confront fewer issues. And his issues of race, sexuality, and gender cut close to the core of the debates over rights and roles breaking out everywhere today. Like most third world directors and American directors of color, Singleton chooses to use his voice to present topics that mainstream Hollywood productions fail to address. The film takes place at "Columbus University," and follows the lives of three incoming first year students: a black runner on scholarship, struggling with academics and race; a white woman encountering the problems of being working-class and female at a university; and a white man trying to deal with his alienation from a society that does not fit his picture of America. The three of them confront questions of race, sexuality (lost), privilege, and amazingly enough, the rigors of academia. It is the resolution of these issues that structures the story of "Higher Learning." Trying to understand the movie as more than a cinematic event, to appreciate it for the statement Singleton was trying to make, I flashed back on the 1988 Presidential race. When George Bush was elected, Tracy Chapman's debut album, which dealt with issues of domestic violence and marginalization, was the number one selling album in the country. The contrast between the way people were buying and the way they were voting disturbed and amazed. Those who bought Chapman's album just didn't seem to make it to the polls in the numbers necessary to defeat Bush. The pattern recurred with the 1994 Republican victory and the release of "Higher Learning." The movie deals with many of Chapman's subjects, but expands them into a-typical dialogues on race, sexuality, and gender. In some ways, because of the medium, the movie is better able than the record to communicate what's wrong, and why "we" need to fix it. It is the creation of a "we" that redeems "Higher Learning" from its initial flaw of bad character development. The movie consciously portrays the coalition needed to generate a more effective progressive society: women, queers, all people of color, and white progressive men. Oddly, though, for a movie about people marginalized by the "system," little is done to include Chicanos and Asians; the African- American characters are left to represent all people of color. There is something exciting here in a white progressive man's being depicted as part of the coalition; it says there's room for everybody who wants to be a part of change. That message seems especially important, because if communities that have been "othered" and excluded perpetuate that destructive way of seeing people, we will get nowhere. As appealing as Singleton's portrayal is, there are obvious missteps, such as the Neo-nazis being the most engaging characters, with the clearest purpose of action. And the lesbian relationship is over-simplified and in some ways stereotyped, although it is pictured as positive, intimate, and sexual. In fact it is the honesty of the resistance/acceptance of the relationship that is so accurate, and unusual. Singleton went out on a limb with it, challenging elements in communities of color that are uncomfortable with homosexuality-and pointing out that the same "group" which spews the rhetoric of "family values" and demonizes gays, excludes people of color as well. Technically a bit uneven, "Higher Learning" is well worth seeing as the first "industry movie" by a young black director/writer ever to tackle issues of homosexuality and race. Singleton is doing what no other black directors and few white directors are doing: he is showing a real part of this society, showing us our seldom-seen reflection in a troubling, honest way. In times rife with divisiveness, he shows us that we can all get along and acknowledge our differences at the same time.