John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” is a film easier to review than most. That’s attributable to the fact that it actually has something to say and is filled with plenty of points to be debated and discussed.
While most films being pumped out today don’t attempt to do more than entertain, “Higher Learning” brings forth racial and sexual issues and takes a stand on them.
“Higher Learning” concerns the affairs on the campus of the fictitious Columbus University. The main characters are all freshmen, new to the “college scene.”
There’s Malik (Omar Epps), a star track runner who wants to do well on and off the field and discovers how hard this can be. Kristen (Kristy Swanson) is a naive and innocent young woman who discovers who she is at Columbus. Tyra Banks plays a woman from the inner city attending college on a scholarship. Finally, there’s Remy, the most memorable character of the film, whose frustrations and need to be accepted land him with a dangerous crowd.
Singleton draws good performances from each of these individuals; as they attend class, get drunk, have sex and fall in love, each encounters different forms of racism and prejudice. Whether it be sly remarks or brutal fistfights, the race and background of nearly everyone comes into play at some point.
Racial issues lead the list of controversial topics addressed, but the film is not limited to that. Homosexuality plays a part, too. After one character has a bad experience with the opposite sex, that person later has a homosexual experience.
This personal revelation is not treated as a rejection of heterosexuality based on one bad experience, but as an awakening.
These topics play an important role in the plot, but it’s the racial tension that leads to violent confrontations. The anger at whites against blacks and blacks against whites escalates further and further until it becomes deadly.
Most of the acting is great, but Swanson and Rapaport deserve special attention. Swanson proves she can play dramatic roles well, something she never got the chance to do in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Here she is very good and makes Kristen understandable and interesting.
In literally all of his scenes, Rapaport is so good he is the center of attention. His pain and loneliness, which hatches into anger and resentment, is evident in all of his facial expressions and body movements. Remy’s unfulfilled desire to be accepted and have friends come across marvelously. Rapaport deserves, but won’t get, Oscar attention.
Singleton (director of “Boyz N the Hood”) has made an infinitely interesting and captivating movie, entertaining from the first frame, proving that he is no one-hit sensation. He shows his skill at telling a story and building up tensions beautifully.
The only place the film betrays itself is in the predictably bloody ending, some overly melodramatic death scenes and Laurence Fishburne’s performance as a wise professor.
But “Higher Learning” makes up for these mistakes as a film that is entertaining and memorable.
ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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