The eagerness and all-out urgency driving John Singleton's movies often overwhelm his common sense, but no one can fault the young filmmaker for lack of feeling or purpose. In Boyz N the Hood, Singleton threw himself into the streets of Los Angeles with both philosophical barrels blazing, and by the time the smoke cleared, he'd mowed down every subject in his path--urban violence, black manhood, shattered families, lost dreams, personal responsibility. At the end, it was hard to know if the master plan, such as it was, held together, but you sure felt wrung out.
If anything, Higher Learning is even more frantic and insistent. It's a kind of video crash course--Diversity and Race Relations 101--and because no one has told Singleton how difficult it is to juggle the embryonic ethnic, cultural and sexual identities of nearly a dozen impressionable college freshmen in one two-hour movie, he's just gone ahead and thrown them all together on campus, each with his or her personal bullhorn blaring. Luckily, the movie is as good-hearted as it is heavy-handed.
The setting is fictional Columbus University, a major school somewhere in sunny Southern California, although the place seems tougher than most state penitentiaries. Campus cops built like locomotives roam the pathways with nightsticks at the ready. Drunken frat boys rape coeds at will. White-supremacist skinheads with swastikas tattooed on their chests recruit insecure eighteen-year-olds as if they were candidates for the Latin Club.
Enter our three central characters: Malik Williams (Omar Epps) is a lean track star, sweet-tempered and a bit uncertain, who presumes, wrongly, that he'll cruise through freshman year. Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson) is a naive girl horribly traumatized the first night on campus. Insecure Remy (Michael Rapaport) wants to study engineering, but first he stumbles into the only kind of club that will have him. These kids and others all come of age in the course of a semester containing more upheavals, radical philosophical turnabouts and bloody tragedies than most student bodies endure in a decade. Some of this excess is useful dramatic concision on Singleton's part, but the movie has an air of hurry and cram, as though the director fears he'll miss something.
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The young cast, which also features rapper Ice Cube, Jennifer Connelly, Tyra Banks and Jason Wyles, is fresh and likable, and we vividly feel the sea changes in these kids' lives. Feminism! Black pride! Intellectual awakening! Nothing's too good for the freshman class. Laurence Fishburne is back, too, in the role of a tweedy, pipe-smoking political science professor who dashes every youthful delusion with aplomb and holds forth (just as Fishburne did in Hood) on strength and maturity. He's enjoyable to watch, with his hauteur, professorial diction and neat bow tie, but Singleton may as well hang a sign around his neck reading "Wisdom." In the end, Professor Phipps is just a little too wise, wonderful and avuncular to escape caricature.
It's clear what a wonderfully talented moviemaker Singleton is, how driven by will and passion. But at 26, he still fears that we just won't get it unless he bashes us over the head. If his script calls for a fight between a skinhead and an African-American kid, he stages it under a portrait of George Washington. If a crazed sniper is going to shoot into a crowd, he fells the first victim at the foot of a statue of that notorious thief and murderer, Christopher Columbus. Finally, Singleton doesn't even trust the strength of the message he's been sending out all along: He's already pled eloquently for interracial understanding and new attitudes, but he still feels the need to superimpose the word UNLEARN in huge letters over a full-screen shot of the American flag.
Such young-artist excesses (exemplified by Singleton's awful second movie, Poetic Justice, starring the gum-snapping nonactress Janet Jackson) will almost certainly moderate with time. For now, he remains a filmmaker almost as raw and fervent and changeable as the kids he shows us in Higher Learning. Like theirs, his progress is a beautiful thing to behold.--Gallo
Higher Learning. Written and directed by John Singleton. With Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rapaport, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Connelly.