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‘Higher Learning’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 13, 1995


John Singleton
Omar Epps;
Laurence Fishburne;
Kristy Swanson;
Ice Cube;
Michael Rapaport
nudity, violence, profanity and overt depictions of racial hatred

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For every persuasive insight John Singleton brings to "Higher Learning," his thoughtful but flawed movie about multiculturalism and racism, he throws in something equally disappointing. In this ensemble drama, which stars Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne and others, African Americans are allowed some of the high life, energy and dimension they have traditionally been denied in the movies.

But all too many white characters serve Singleton's transparent purposes as one-dimensional bimbos, bigoted security cops, laughable lesbians, tattooed neo-nazis, mindless metalheads or hayseed yokels.

Set on the fictitious campus of Columbus University, where almost every conceivable racial, cultural and gender group seems represented, "Higher Learning" has three interwoven story lines. In one, black athletic-scholarship student Epps realizes that he has to work harder than everyone to keep up. In another, Swanson, a white, unbearably naive freshman, learns about date rape the hard way. And in the movie's weakest plot, Michael Rapaport, the dorky, white son of a midwest survivalist, drifts from social group to social group until he's recruited by white supremacists.

Singleton has much on his mind, particularly the societal obstacles placed before black American males. Epps's story, in which Caribbean-accented professor Fishburne bullies him into bettering himself, explores part of this. And the frequently amusing Ice Cube, a student who confronts institutional racism whenever it occurs (which is all the time, of course), fills in the rest. But in his zeal to create moral breathing space for his black characters, Singleton seems to have forgotten about everyone else.

Singleton explores subtly telling instances of racism -- the way a white freshman protectively clutches her pocketbook when she's in an elevator with Epps, for instance. There are also some positively drawn white characters: When Epps decides it's time to leave his white roommate to move in with his "own," the roommate (Jason Wiles) protests, insisting he's not like the others. There's also a gratifying friendship between black student Regina King and Swanson.

But these moments are severely outnumbered by cardboard-cutout figures, particularly the campus security cops who break up black parties and demand IDs of black students, and Rapaport's fellow skinheads who flex muscles, brandish firearms and talk about killing "mud people." These types may exist in real life but in his heavy-handed roundup of oppressors, Singleton has crowded them into one corner and thrown tomatoes at them. Showing racism at the hands of such tritely created morons hardly makes for a revealing struggle. Surely, higher learning should be about more than that.

HIGHER LEARNING (R) -- Contains nudity, violence, profanity and overt depictions of racial hatred.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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