The buzz of “Animal House” wears off pretty quickly after a single viewing of “Higher Learning.” When I caught up with this film, early in 1995, I had a year to go before college. Like a lot of things in life I was still too young to experience, everything I knew about campus life, I knew from the movies. The image of John Belushi was forever stuck in my mind, so much in fact, I brought a poster of his likeness to my freshman dorm room (it seemed like the proper way to enter college). My naiveté had reference points like the TV show, “A Different World,” as an example of what pursuing higher learning was going to be like. Then I saw John Singleton’s film, “Higher Learning,” and it scared me silly.
Coming off of his mammothly successful, still-great “Boyz N The Hood” and the sting of his ambitious but overreaching “Poetic Justice” underperforming, Singleton’s third film was a real about-face. Rather than the measured blend of social commentary, personal reflection and cautionary tale approach of “Boyz,” he made an angry, over-the-top, flamboyant critique of campus life.
“Higher Learning” oddly feels like Singleton’s attempt to make a Spike Lee movie, in which anger, and stinging social commentary, blended with entertainment value and personal, in-your-face filmmaking, create a forceful, thoroughly ambitious work, both effective enough and too much. Lee, who is a better, seasoned filmmaker, has, likewise, made movies that pushed too hard and seemingly didn’t trust audiences to get the points he was making. His early works, while consistently terrific, are guilty of this kind of blaring speechifying, particularly “School Daze.” Singleton, whose “Boyz” debut announced the arrival of an important new cinematic voice, has yet to make his “Malcolm X” and has subsequently taken to mainstream, impersonal filmmaking. This is unfortunate, as his first three films (even his undisciplined but passionate “Poetic Justice”) suggest he was on his way.
“Higher Learning” is about the experience of a young African-American (Omar Epps) during a harrowing year at Columbus University. It’s also about how another naive student (Kristy Swanson) is raped, survives and finds comfort in the arms of a sympathetic lesbian (Jennifer Connelly). It’s also about prejudice in an atmosphere of academia, as it affects a charismatic professor (Laurence Fishburne) and confrontational student (Ice Cube). Then, there’s the film’s real wild card, a touch both potentially cartoonish and overreaching, but so compelling, I went with it: Michael Rapaport plays yet another student, whose loneliness and inability to fit in inspires him to join a white supremacy group. Cole Hauser, in a frightening performance, plays the head of the group, whose presence on campus takes the story in a violent direction.
For all the big, melodramatic moments in the final act, the film makes its points about the student’s bouts of bigotry, insecurities, isolation, and transformations into politically/socially aware thinkers. A scene in an elevator, with Swanson clutching her purse at the sight of Epps, makes a solid observation. So does the scene where Cube and his buddies are harassed by campus police.
“Higher Learning” was a mid-size hit for Singleton and deservedly so. If Singleton is doing anything he learned from the Spike Lee approach, it’s making meaningful, personal and impacting movies about the African-American experience, it’s to present confrontational ideas fearlessly and always keeping your movies entertaining. With a cast this good, all giving it everything they’ve got (even Tyra Banks, in her film debut, is a dazzler) and the horror-of-college-life angle exploited in full, Singleton succeeds at making his points, both intellectual and half-considered. For better or worse, “Higher Learning” is never subtle.
The subplots don’t all connect or even fully digress, but the performances are strong enough to compensate for a running time that seems to have been trimmed down too much. Fishburne, Epps, Hauser and Rapaport are especially great and Singleton is going for broke here. He’s like a bug catcher, swishing his net tirelessly at a cloud of butterflies that are swarming away. He can’t fully capture all of them, but man, watch him work that net!