“I thought you were one of the smart ones but you ain’t so you have to go.”
Remember back in the day when it felt like every black made movie had to have some important message about the state of race in America. As if, young black directors were amazed that they were getting behind a camera and wanted to make the biggest statement they could before someone took their toys away. After all, even House Party had it’s evil racist cops, not to mention George Clinton, whose presence in and of himself has to be considered some sort of statement. Higher Learning is John Singleton’s interracial state of today’s campuses version of School Daze minus the musical numbers. Surprisingly, it’s just as much a gang movie if not more than Boyz ‘n the Hood.
Higher Learning takes place at Columbus University, Singleton’s little micro-section of American. Columbus as in America but not necessarily as a complement to what is seen here as a murdering white interloper. The movie opens on the America Flag with a critical eye, not as angry as Spike Lee who had burned it a few years before at the beginning of Malcolm X, but not necessarily standing up for the National Anthem either. Singleton does toss in a very Fascist looking pep rally and a version of that generic college advertisement they always show at halftime of some basketball game. UNLV had half its players in hot tubs with gangsters at one point but they still tried to act like they were a storied institute of higher learning, especially if you want to work in a big hotel.
Everybody at Columbus University nervously attends the Freshman mixer together and then immediately run scared to join the gang that fits them best. The black kid joins the black group. The date rapers join Fraternities. The date raped give up on the Sorority girls and join the semi angry lesbian feminists. Eventually, the white trash kid unable to find anyone else willing to give him the time of day gets scooped up by the neo Nazi skinheads, and that’s when things really get dicey. There wasn’t a huge skinhead legion present when I was at Northwestern, but everything else is pretty right on target down to the financial aid office, and I think one would have to agree that you are never exposed to so many different kinds of people and ideas as you were when you were in college. I knew there was a huge amount of segregation, but it didn’t seem like there was much to do about it other than to be as civil as possible. I used to say hello to one of the school’s black basketball players all the time, but that didn’t mean that we ever really had talked about much other than the last time we had been to the gym. Just so I could feel included Singleton even introduces a decent white guy, who doesn’t join anyone and wanders around wondering why everybody just can’t get along and ignore their differences. Of course they all have their own music be it Liz Phair, Rage Against the Machine (for a skinhead?), or REM. Of course Ice Cube gets to listen to himself.
In it’s own way both Do the Right Thing and School Daze were about the pros, cons and effects of everyone being forced to choose a group. Spike Lee threw a garbage can through a window and yelled “hate” because everyone forced him to pick a side. In Higher Learning everyone picks a side more out of a sense of comfort and peer pressure, but the effects aren’t any more promising. If I read the film right, the story’s tragic ending happens maybe because Omar Epps didn’t feel like playing another video game with Michael Rappaport, which is probably too simple, but I suppose a sadly possible way that little things can have the ability to explode into violence and discomfort. In Do the Right Thing, it came down to turning down a radio.
Each groups has very convincing leaders. Ice Cube, with a nice Afro here, is Fudge the leader of the black guys. He is the one guy who went to college to learn something, but he’s not about to see his boys disrespected. Fudge, is the kind of brother who feels remorse and sadness for the whole world after he is forced to give some skinheads the beat down. Buster Rhymes is pretty wacked out and entertaining as Cube’s right hand man, and Omar Epps, once again on athletic scholarship, his new acolyte. Hell, if I were in college and I could get away with it I would have loved to hang with Cube’s posse and smoke some weed and listen to Dr. Dre, and I totally believe that music helps that actually happen or come closer to happening every day. Cube’s group doesn’t hate all the white guys but they don’t seem to hang with them either.
If there’s any one thing I definitely remember about college, it is that everyone thought the campus security was filled with morons. They are like the Keystone Cops here as they repeatedly beat the closest black guy they can find, while the true threats meanders by. Cube scares the hell out of these guys and he loves it. Imagine, what campus security is like to a guy who came from South Central? It’s not even the second team. It’s not completely unlike those scab replacement football players. Every time they ask to see Cube and his posse’s I.D. Cube yells back “let me see your ID’s” and they scurry away with their tails between their legs.
The interesting thing here is that the Neo Nazi leader, silkily and threateningly played by Cole Hauser, is telling his crew the same thing that Cube is telling his. Wake up. Educate yourself. Take care of your own. Michael Rappaport, Zebrahead’s original whigger, is the turnstone in the psycho role of his career, aside from stalking Lily Taylor, as the ticking time bomb. Rappaport does a nice decent into pathological sociopath, after he quickly figures out that he’s not smart enough to make it on his wits alone. Of course, becoming a skinhead doesn’t endear him to anybody, but the other skinheads, but at least he finally has somebody to drink beers and to compare guns with. Not Tom Cruise Taps insane but maybe just as scary because he seems more normal when you first meet him.
The main feminist lesbian is played by Jennifer Connelly. None of the lesbians I knew in college or since ever looked like Jennifer Connelly, but it’s Hollywood, I understand. In the world of college lesbians it always seems like there is a pretty girl there willing to initiate you if you really are curious. Kristy Swansons get raped by a semi-evil fraternity guy, who doesn’t seem that bad but was stupid enough to rape a girl who was willing to let him just find a condom, which guides her path Jennifer’s way. You decide if her black roommate calling Cube and the gang on him was more because he threw a slur at her or because he raped her friend. Are beer swilling creep Fraternity brothers a cliche or just the truth? Who knows but these at least seem a lot more realistic than the bunch in Revenge of the Nerds. The guys in Animal House seemed OK but then again that took place a hundred years ago or so, and although they dug Otis Day I didn’t see a lot of brothers in Delta Tau either. The Sorority girls aren’t much better.
Epps is a scholarship runner and pretty much the same character as he was in The Program, but his new sport doesn’t really promise wealth and fame here and he begins to feel used, exploited, looked down upon and at a gigantic disadvantage scholastically. Chances are he is a runner because Singleton loved the idea of having Ice Cube look at him and say “Run Nigger Run.” Luckily, he has Tyra Banks to tutor him. The poor sap he played in The Program had to settle for Halle Berry.
Laurence Fishburne is the Jamaican sounding political science professor, that tries to make his students examine the world’s social order without falling asleep in his class. I’m not really sure why he is Jamaican, maybe Singleton is a big Bob Marley fan. Epps tries the same trick C. Thomas Howell did in Soul Man, unsuccessfully looking for a fellow black man to help a young brother out but Fishburne isn’t buying any more than James Earl Jones was. Singleton doesn’t like the disadvantage black college students face, but he argues through Fishburne, who was also the knowledge bringer in Boyz N the Hood, for the we’ll have to be that much better camp. He knows it’s both financial as well as race and gender. Ice Cube represents the knowledgeable but angrier set, but he isn’t going to burn anything down and he isn’t trapped like he was in Boyz N the Hood. Like Malcolm X he’s open to ideas, but not willing to have his back pushed to the wall. When Fishburne asks him what he is doing one day he says he is “plotting ..to steal the information.” He’s also smart enough to know that you should stay in college as long as you can possibly get away with it.
Feel sorry for Adam Goldberg, as the poor Jewish slob, who gets stuck with Rappaport as he gradually turns neo-Nazi. Rappaport is so angered at backing down from a confrontation with Epps that he trashes his room and pulls out a gun. Goldberg isn’t pleased with his roommate and as it is in college is OK with Rappaport trashing his own side of the room, but did you have to mess up my stuff too? When Rappaport pulls the gun out Goldberg is completely freaked out, scared, and amazed that he has wound up in this place. When Epps pops over he’s probably just as scared but far too intensely proud and angry to think for a second of looking or backing away, which is almost as scary. Then again he does have Cube and his gang to back him. The skinheads or at least their leader definitely wants the fight and most of Cube’s army is itching to give it to them. It doesn’t make Goldberg much calmer when the security guys come in and start pummeling Epps.
There are a lot of people willing to join the new society here, but most are a bit discouraged and overwhelmed by the whole scene. Kristy Swanson, from near Disneyland, gets to go through hell and move forward from protecting her purse at the sight of Epps to consoling him with shared attempt at understanding. Epps winds up with yet more to think about, which I suppose is the point of a decent college education.
I would imagine that a lot of people who went to college just studied and played foos-ball like I did, but to its credit some people actually study and go to class in this movie. Of course that doesn’t mean that there are any Math or Chemistry professors around (actually Fishburne is the only professor you will even find), but there’s some nice ideas and realistically felt characters here. Singleton cares like a concerned parent. It could have used Sam Jackson eating at a Kentucky Fried Chicken like in School Daze, but then again what movie couldn’t, and who can resist a soundtrack with Tony! Toni! Toné on it. Although Singleton remembers what it was like to need to have it turned down so folks could sleep if they so chose, which was my less serious biggest hassle at school.