Major Spoilers for Higher Learning

I think what John Singleton demonstrates with Higher Learning is his ability to get a message across in a Hollywood film, using a variety of methods – allegory, stereotypes, and even plain old good writing. If Strange Days is James Cameron’s best script, Avatar is probably his worst. Compare the latter with this movie: Avatar uses a plastic-transparent metaphor to tell us that we should get along with people who are different, or maybe it’s telling us that we should have when we invaded America, and nobody, not anybody, not even me, thought it was a good idea: that story was terrible. Even though Higher Learning says essentially the same thing, that we should all get along and junk, it goes about it in a fashion that is intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

Now, intellectually of course is a touchy word to throw around. This is not to say that Higher Learning is pretentious or that it is like the smartest thing ever, man. It’s not an Oshii film (pretentious). It is however, a movie about racism and hatred. It is more comparable to something like Do the Right Thing than to American History X, to give a frame of reference. There is no rigid plotline, but characters and events that eventually come together.

The movie is centered around a college, a place of higher learning, if you will. This is sort of a mechanic that Singleton uses to explore areas of hatred, fear, confusion, and most of all education. You go to school to learn about stuff, and then you enter society. It’s a stepping stone. According to this movie, high school would be for science, history, math, and language, but college would be for learning how to be a person, learning about yourself and your place relative to everyone else. The students in this school, Columbus University, learn by means of traditional educators, and perhaps just as importantly, each other. Not only do students pass around flyers for clubs and engage in discussions, they also struggle to come to grips with each other.

When the three main characters – Remmy, girl, and the main guy whose name I can’t spell or remember – go to college, are outsiders initially. They experience this new world their own ways, this world where, as Ice Cube points out early on, people are undoubtedly defined by their race or gender or sexual preference or mentality. Some fit in readily, some learn hard, and some are slow to be accepted.

The last of which is Remmy, played by Michael Rappaport. He’s probably the most interesting character, as he embodies most readily the idea of people as victims of their environments. He’s an outsider, from a town nobody else is, and he can’t seem to fit in with anyone. He moves out of his dorm because he’s at odds with Ice Cube, and he almost gets into a fight with one of the white people on the other side, over there. He’s a softspoken guy who uses the word “man” as a form of punctuation – he’s hard to hear, and he’s kind of irritating to listen to.

Cole Hauser sees fit to take advantage of this. Hauser, who I only ever see as the guy from Pitch Black, channels Remmy’s frustration and out-of-placeness into hatred by both feeding him skinhead agendas and creating both a target (other races) and a victim (white people by reverse discrimination). Remmy isn’t a bad guy, but he sure as hell becomes one. By the end, even after a gun is in his hands, he’s still just confused and frustrated, but we can add manipulated to that list. The development of his frustration into anger (that we don’t believe he is 100% consciously into) manifests itself as the neo-Nazis around him. These are his educators.

Malik, the student I could not earlier name, is just the reverse of this, ‘reverse’ being defined only by race. His teachers are Ice Cube and his crazy buddy. They are always yelling at the cops, and they’re usually right about things. Cops inadvertendly jump to certain conclusions (telling the black crowd to ‘break it up’ but not the white crowd) and Ice Cube is left angry. He sees this freshman who has to run on the track team in order to pay for school, and he sees inequality.

Tyra Banks, yes, she’s in this movie, disagrees. She tells Malik, played by Omar Epps, that many would die to be in the position he is. He’s actually in college. But she gets through to him only too late. “Getting through” are probably key words. The effectiveness of education is measured in real-world decisions: after Tyra Banks is shot by Remmy, instead of running to get help, as Laurence Fishburne wants him to, Malik runs after the shooter. This scene works twofold in terms of ‘the message.’ Not only is it affecting emotionally, but it is subtely allegorical. More subtle than when Remmy takes off his hat in the middle of science class, revealing his newly shaved head. He is flanked on all sides by people of different races, and makes his statement. The lack of dialogue in the scene draws the audience to the significance of the character’s actions – Singleton comes closest here to bashing us over the head, but at least it serves a point for the character, and is followed and preceded by more subtle examples.

Education for young people indicates the future. In this sense, Higher Learning is all about time. The age-old conflicts between races have deep ramifications that extend to the modern-day; Ice Cube notes that black people have been victims for centuries and stuff, and he compares the college to slavery in some way, implying that he and the African American slaves are one in the same to some level, I thought to myself: that’s the classic mindset that people who are racist have. They think that because people hated each other back in the day, that it should continue. Why does “white man’s guilt” exist today? What did my good buddy Podcast co-host ever do to a black person?

But this was intentional by the writer. A neo-Nazi fights with a supporter of the Black Panthers – they never experienced slavery or Affirmative Action, but they’re angry nonetheless. If you put people who are different together, there will be conflict. We just gave a name to it, racism, and thus created a problem that can’t be solved. If the past didn’t exist, these people would still be in conflict some degree. The words “gook,” “towelhead,” and of course, “nigger,” are used because once again, these students are victims, and they are in need of proper education. They feel they have certain claims, certain rights, that they can tap into the past and use it as a weapon in the present. The conflicts of the past were so heinous that the anger and hatred of yesterday is still felt today.

Higher Learning opens and closes on a shot of a large American flag. The country is like Babylon 5, the pilot of which I watched today. It was alright I guess. Better than BSG. It’s a cultural melting pot, and people even today enter here illegally because of the promise of a better tomorrow. That tomorrow means “I want to be an engineer,” not I want this country to be 100% not racist. People are looking out for their own, and this is what needs to be “unlearned,” which is what ends the film over the image of the flag, much like INCREASE THE PEACE was at the end of Boyz N the Hood.

This is more development for John Singleton. This is sort of an evolution from Boyz N the Hood – the problems at home are brought into school, which is a place that seeks to shape growing young adults. I’d say that Higher Learning is more complex than Boyz N the Hood, and this could also signal creative artistic development.

Character growth is defined by education. Around about the middle of the film, Ice Cube throws Malik out of his room because he’s reading up on Frederick Douglass for class, not for growing his own brain. At first he thought he was a smart guy, but no, he’s just doing it for class. Near the very end of the movie, Laurence Fishburne, the teacher character, leaves Malik on a note of wisdom – “without struggle there is no progress.” Malik responds with “Frederick Douglass,” and Fishburne is impressed; he hasn’t yet taught that. This scene is a payoff, and we find that Malik has grown because he has learned, and he has done it independently of the “system.”

In conclude, what’s the deal with Jennifer Connelly getting top billing in this movie? That’s an unfair misnomer; I’m a big fan of Jennifer Connelly, but she wasn’t in the movie all that much. For that matter, neither was Ice Cube.

One last note: there is a scene where the girl character speaks in front of a large crowd, talking about rape and sexism (I neglected to mention that portion of the film). People in the crowd hold up signs about anti-rape, but one of the signs, very visible to the audience, says “rape is a crime.” How is that sign material? That’s not clever, that’s common knowledge. If you’re reminding me of the fact, sign-writer, you have to keep in mind the audience, which is I guess the girl character, who not only got raped, but probably is aware that it is indeed a crime.

“This is college.”
“I don’t know about that no more.”