Movie Review: Higher Learning
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.