Wednesday January 11, 1995
Because he accomplished so much so early, it is easy to forget how young John Singleton is. "Higher Learning" reminds us.
Signed by a major agency while still a student at USC, Singleton saw his first film as a writer-director, "Boyz N the Hood," debut to exceptional notices and make him at age 23 the youngest person and the first African American to be nominated for the best director Oscar.
Singleton followed "Boyz" with the disappointing "Poetic Justice," and now, still in his 20s, comes his third feature, and its youthfulness shows in more than its college setting. In both how much Singleton wants to say and the difficulty he has in being dramatically effective with all that to express, his age is showing.
Focusing on a trio of incoming students at the fictional multicultural Columbus University (shot largely at UCLA), "Higher Learning" has more on its mind than an entire year's worth of standard studio films. It explores, among other things, racism both casual and blatant, ethnic polarization, date rape, neo-Nazis, bisexual experimentation, and the pressures society puts on black men in general and black athletes in particular.
In a "Dumb and Dumber" world, it is undeniably heartening to see someone trying to address what is going on in society, a filmmaker who wants to use the medium to do the right thing. But presenting problems is not the same as dramatizing them successfully, and as strong as his message is, Singleton has not found the best way to deliver it.
Two of "Higher Learning's" three protagonists bump into each other in a dormitory elevator early on, but since they're on separate life paths, they don't reconnect until the film is nearly over and they've both experienced quite a lot.
Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson) is a sheltered young white woman from Orange County whose family has lately fallen on hard financial times. Clearly unused to people of color, she nervously clutches her handbag when Malik Williams (Omar Epps) enters the elevator, an act that Malik, a high school track star on an athletic scholarship, observes with a kind of resigned disgust.
Having even more difficulty connecting with anybody is Remy (Michael Rapaport), a lonely outcast from Idaho whose identity as a heavy-metal fan is not enough to make him feel at home or figure out where he belongs on a campus that is much more diverse than anything he's anticipated.
Around these three revolve a small galaxy of subsidiary characters. There is Monet (Regina King), Kristen's acerbic African American roommate; Deja (Tyra Banks), an attractive fellow runner Malik has his eye on; Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), a campus feminist who befriends Kristen; Wayne (Jason Wiles), Malik's easygoing white roommate; and Fudge (Ice Cube), a sixth-year senior who is a master of glacial cool.
With its cast fairly evenly divided, "Higher Learning" mostly avoids the trap of patronizing either race. In fact, "Zebrahead's" Michael Rapaport gives the film's most interesting performance as the troubled Remy, and Singleton has taken care to make the film's neo-Nazi skinheads, especially their leader, Scott (Cole Hauser), recognizable.
What "Higher Learning" does have difficulty doing is making a coherent whole out of its mass of shifting focuses. Without the aid of the recognizable faces that Robert Altman uses to keep the identities of his characters from becoming confusing, it is often hard to remember if we've met someone before and, as, for instance, with nice guy Wayne, what exactly it was he did the last time we saw him.
Adding to the difficulty is that Singleton can't always manage to bring enough nuance to his characterizations. Too many of the people in "Higher Learning," like Taryn the feminist, tend to come off as billboards more than people, staking out positions when they should be becoming human, a difficulty that extends to two of the film's most revered characters, Fudge and Professor Maurice Phipps (the always magnetic Laurence Fishburne).
Of all the characters in the film, Singleton, not surprisingly, seems to have invested the most in Malik Williams, smart and talented but unsure about how to handle the pressures placed on a successful young African American. Fudge and Phipps, because they see his promise, try in their own ways to educate Malik, to awaken him to his potential and his responsibilities.
But while the professor can't be argued with when he says "information is power," and Malik is similarly correct when he says, "as a black man in America, stresses come from everywhere," the accuracy of their words is not the issue. Though Singleton has a youthful desire to preach to his audience and show them the light, those kinds of statements are best absorbed when they flow out of meaningful situations, not just the character's mouths.
Despite a weakness for trying to tie things up with melodramatic violence, Singleton remains a fluid filmmaker who works well with actors. And when he is not trying so hard to make points--for instance, in a playful scene of Malik flirting with Deja--his skill is evident. Still finding his way after that expectation-raising early success, Singleton probably already knows the truth of the Frederick Douglass statement he has Professor Phipps quote: "Without struggle, there is no progress." He may not be there yet, but he is on the road.
Higher Learning, 1995. R, for scenes of violence and sexuality, and for strong language. A New Deal production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director John Singleton. Producers John Singleton, Paul Hall. Screenplay John Singleton. Cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister. Editor Bruce Cannon. Costumes Carol Oditz. Music Stanley Clarke. Production design Keith Brian Burns. Art director Richard Holland. Set decorator Michael C. Claypool. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. Omar Epps as Malik Williams. Kristy Swanson as Kristen Connor. Michael Rapaport as Remy. Jennifer Connelly as Taryn. Ice Cube as Fudge. Laurence Fishburne as Professor Maurice Phipps.