Directed by John Singleton. Starring Omar Epps, Ice Cube, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rapaport, Jennifer Connelly, Regina King, Laurence Fishburne. (1995, R, 127 min.)
REVIEWED By Joey O'Bryan, Fri., Jan. 20, 1995
Higher Learning is a disappointment. What might have been director Singleton's (Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice) most ambitious and potentially intriguing work, wound up as his most shallow and scattershot. The story follows a radically diverse group of college freshman and their trials, tribulations, confrontations, and transformations as they struggle through their first year at Columbus University. The most important of these characters is Malik (Epps), a member of the track team on partial scholarship, who becomes bitter when he realizes that his athletic ability is his only worth to the school. The other main characters, Kristen (Swanson), a naïve and spoiled girl who flirts with lesbianism after a date-rape experience, and Remy (Rapaport), a withdrawn misfit-turned-psychotic skinhead, seem unstable, silly, and in Remy's case, totally unlikeable and repulsive. If Singleton wants us to feel for these people's plights, he doesn't do a very good job since the film's tragedies and dramas were met with laughter and sarcasm from the audience. Luckily, the movie features two great performances: Laurence Fishburne as a stern teacher and Ice Cube as a worldly senior, both of whom function as Malik's unofficial mentors. While Fishburne (who will probably never top his work in Deep Cover )is charming and deals nicely with a tricky accent that would leave lesser actors looking foolish, Ice Cube proves that he is a born movie star, taking command of the screen with a self-confident, swaggering attitude augmented by a surprising sense of comic timing. But several supporting players are lost in a script that leaves their characters' conflicts unresolved by the picture's close, which attempts to sum up the film's message in an embarrassingly blunt final image that seems out of place in a film that supposedly encourages audiences to think for themselves. So, what is Higher Learning trying to say? Who Knows? It certainly isn't “can't we all just get along” but it also doesn't portray this idea as an impossibility either. It's the kind of film, like Natural Born Killers, that seems like a grand statement about society, even if it can't exactly nail down what it wants to say. But while NBK's director Oliver Stone wholeheartedly admits his confusion about his “grand statements,” Singleton approaches Higher Learning as if this were his masterpiece and the final word on racial unrest in America. In defense of Singleton, it is, for the most part, a heartfelt attempt which contains some startling images and a few clever sequences, although it just isn't enough to hold the whole thing together. At best, it's a fascinating failure.