[box cover]

Higher Learning

There are several possible ways to interpret John Singleton's 1995 Higher Learning: as one of the most articulate and unguarded portrayals of racism ever captured on film; as an entertaining but inarguably lightweight version of Spike Lee's masterful Do the Right Thing; or as a hate-filled exploitation flick that promotes the same racist beliefs it seems on the surface to be vilifying. The truth lies somewhere between the first two guesses — although Higher Learning often falls short in the subtlety department, Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) has worked these oft-recycled themes into a fascinating snapshot of racial tension in the teenage world. The story takes place entirely on the campus of the fictitious Columbus University, where the students blanket the spectrum in race, gender, sexual preference and age. We're exposed to the awkward integration of the still-wet-behind-the-ears incoming freshman; the weary-but-determined-to-graduate upperclassmen; and even a few students who seem content to hang around long after they should have received their sheepskins, simply because they like being big fish in the collegic microcosm. Into this den of both knowledge and ignorance come Kristen (Kristy Connor), a young white freshman from the upper-class suburbs of Orange County, Calif.; Monet (Regina King), Kristen's African American roommate, who is so far removed from Kristen's experiences that they can barely relate to each other; Malik (Omar Epps), a black track star eager to cry "racist" to anyone not willing to give him preferential treatment; and the insecure and dimwitted Remy (Michael Rapaport), a white wallflower searching for somewhere to fit in. Fascinatingly, Singleton here reveals not only the standard racial discriminations that have been preached to death in other movies, but also those that hover on the fringe of societal awareness: the light-skinned Professor Phipps (Laurence Fishburne)'s snooty superiority over the dark-skinned Malik; the outraged stares two young lesbians are forced to endure while holding hands on campus, and the harsh racial treatment that can drive an otherwise amiable young man into a militant insanity. Wisely (and responsibly), no one race or sex is implicated as the cause of the mortifying events that unfurl over the course of the movie. Everyone, to some degree, is at fault, and perhaps the single most important thing Higher Learning does is allow us to see and understand all sides of the issue, including the simple acts of discrimination that we as a society engage in — often without realizing it. "They just hate me 'cause they ain't me," frets Dreads (Busta Rhymes), although he's too blind to see that his own antagonistic attitude is partially responsible for his alienation. Dreads is typical of the characters found in this story — he refuses to take accountability for his actions, and must face the consequences as a result. Ultimately, Higher Learning is not so much a condemnation of the way things are as an affirmation that we don't have to keep them that way. (That's an interesting juxtaposition of Do the Right Thing's downbeat ending, which implies — through its assertion that "today's gonna be even hotter" — that the racism cycle is unbreakable.) Columbia TriStar's DVD edition of Higher Learning is a visual delight, offering a newly remastered widescreen transfer that looks sharp, crisp and colorful. There are a few instances of mild "color-banding" (especially during scenes of sharp lighting contrasts), but these are exceedingly minor and probably unnoticeable unless one is specifically looking for picture flaws. English, French and Spanish audio tracks are included (and you simply haven't lived until you've heard Ice Cube's Fudge character unleash a tirade of racist propaganda in French), several subtitle tracks, filmographies for the major cast and crew members, and trailers for three John Singleton films (including this one). Singleton also contributes a commentary track. Keep-case.
—Joe Barlow

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