Higher Learning is a scathing film which pushes hard at the perception of Universities as places of diversity. Like other college movies, Singleton makes characters into the most extreme version of themselves and offers up his own versions of popular stereotypes. I think this movie is a must see because this film doesn’t degrade into a sappy multicultural story. As one character puts it: “you’ve got to get that We are the World shit out of your head”.
Omar Epps stars as Malik, a first year student athlete whose racial awareness is heightened by his constant harassment by the campus cops and his friendship with Fudge, played by Ice Cube a blunt rolling sixth year black power student.
Of course I think that Ice Cube steals the show with his quick delivery and deadpan stares. He gives extended lectures with a central debate on how black folk should respond to racism. Laurence Fishburne’s character – a bootstraps hardnosed professor encourages Malik to take responsibility for his actions and get serious in his work, while Fudge helps to explain why racism makes it impossible to be moderate about consciousness.
The central thinker discussed by the black characters on the screen is Fredrick Douglass, the abolitionist leader and famous orator. Singleton is making a movie designed to entertain, so the learning doesn’t get too preachy, but the ideas are interesting. What would have been neat would have been to include Harriet Tubman as another political philosophy. Butch Lee’s book on Harriet Tubman: a Jailbreak out of history does an incredible job contrasting Tubman’s guerilla army strategy with Douglass’ above ground work.
There are other storylines in Higher learning, a rape and developing feminist consciousness in a young woman (Kristy Swanson) and the development of a young nazi. But neither of these stories gets the development of the central question posed by Malik.
They do offer great moments of cinema, for example, when Michael Rappaport’s character, a budding white supremacist, realizes that engineering might not be the right major for him as the camera pans over an extremely diverse class – as he chooses that moment to unveil his new skinhead haircut.
Everywhere in Higher Learning Singleton is layering complex messages using the camera. He uses several shots of the American flag to mark moments of hypocrisy and courage, bad guys are marked with skull t-shirts and nazi flags, and several shots have main characters coming to poignant realizations while behind them anonymous white college life continues unchallenged.
The dialogue is sharp, the ideas are difficult and the movie doesn’t have a happy ending. Sounds like the right movie about discrimination on campus.