Movie Review

Higher Learning

49 Countries. 6 Races. 2 Sexes. 1 Campus.
Higher Learning Movie Poster

US Release Date: 01-11-1995

Directed by: John Singleton


  • Omar Epps
  • Malik Williams
  • Kristy Swanson
  • Kristen Connor
  • Michael Rapaport
  • Remy
  • Jennifer Connelly
  • Taryn
  • Ice Cube
  • Fudge
  • Tyra Banks
  • Deja
  • Cole Hauser
  • Scott Moss
  • Laurence Fishburne
  • Professor Maurice Phipps
  • Bradford English
  • Officer Bradley
  • Regina King
  • Monet
  • Jason Wiles
  • Wayne
  • Busta Rhymes
  • Dreads
  • Jay R. Ferguson
  • Billy
  • Adam Goldberg
  • David Isaacs
  • Bridgette Wilson
  • Nicole
  • Kari Wuhrer
  • Claudia
  • Morris Chestnut
  • Track Anchor
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: August 22nd, 2010
Michael Rapaport in Higher Learning.

Michael Rapaport in Higher Learning.

Higher Learning, written and directed by John Singleton, is a heavy-handed look at racism on a college campus in the mid-90s.  The performances by several well known names are good and at times it's interesting enough, but the running-time is far too long and by focusing so heavily on race and gender it reduces every character to a single trait.

Kristy Swanson as Kristen, Omar Epps as Malik and Michael Rapaport as Remy, are all freshman at Columbus University.  Kristen is from Orange County, and she grew up near Disneyland.  Malik is there on a Track scholarship.  Remy is from Idaho and he has trouble making friends.

Almost immediately there are racial tensions on campus. 

Remy is rooming with a couple of black guys and they clash, although in reality their conflict has less to do about race and more to do with his roommates being incredibly inconsiderate; playing music loudly and holding parties in their dorm room.  Things get escalated when Remy calls campus security and they shut one of his roommate's parties down, but let a white party down the hall keep going.

Malik falls in with Fudge (Ice Cube), who soon convinces Malik that the mere fact that Malik is at school on a scholarship is somehow racist.  "Run, nigger, run" he tells Malik, who quickly starts to believe him.

Meanwhile, a confused and lonely Remy eventually ends up making friends with some Nazi skinheads.  Malik and Remy have several run-ins and Fudge's group and the skinheads seem headed for a major confrontation.

Kristen's story involves her being date-raped, which leads to a small flirtation with lesbianism when she almost has an affair with Taryn (played by Jennifer Connelly in an incredibly small part).  Her connection to the racism storyline involves her becoming friends with her black roommate (Regina King).

In general the women are shown as more reasonable than the men.  Kristen and her roommate get along.  Malik's girlfriend (Tyra Banks) is pragmatic.  She sees racism too, but knows that the best way for her to survive and move past it is to graduate and make something of herself and not sit around blaming everyone else for her problems.

Although the message of this movie is about racism, it would have been better served if it had been more subtle about it and focused on other things as well.  By constantly harping on about race it only reduces the characters from full-rounded individuals to being either just black, just white, or just a woman.

The movie also runs on far too long.  Kristen's story should have been cut completely or made the entire focus of the film.  Reportedly, a good portion of it was left on the cutting room floor.  She barely appears in the last half and her relationshop with Taryn is never resolved, Connelly just disappears.  Removing Kristen would have reduced the running-time by at least twenty minutes.

Too often Hollywood movies seem afraid to offend anyone and so they play it safe by staying away from hot button issues.  You have to give credit to Singleton for at least broaching several sensitive subjects here.  It just would have been nice if he could have handled it a little more deftly instead of slamming it all in with a sledgehammer.

Reviewed on: February 13th, 2013
Kristy Swanson and Omar Epps in Higher Learning.

Kristy Swanson and Omar Epps in Higher Learning.

This was a movie I saw 2 or 3 times when it first came out but haven't revisited since. It was just the third movie for writer/director John Singleton following Boyz n the Hood and Poetic Justice. He was just 26 at the time so his own college experiences at USC, upon which this movie is partially based, were still relatively fresh in his memory. Higher Learning remains a thought provoking motion picture even though it does at times, as Scott mentioned, ram points home with a heavy hand.

As my brother already told you, the story focuses on three freshman from vastly different walks of life, as they each begin attending the fictional Columbus University (the exterior scenes were filmed at UCLA). Each of them gets taken under the wing of an older person who influences them, for better or for worse as the case may be. I disagree with Scott that these characters aren't fully rounded individuals. The plot might not be subtle but these are real people, flaws and all. They speak and act like believable college students.

As Scott said, Kristen's bisexual love triangle is never fully resolved although these scenes were filmed but left on the cutting room floor. As were additional scenes featuring the Nazi skinheads and other campus group activities. Since the final cut still exceeds 2 hours it makes sense that some of these scenes were eliminated but I would be interested in seeing the original extended version as Singleton envisioned it.

The focus of the story is really on Malik and Remy. Their fates are on a collision course the entire movie. Both Omar Epps and Michael Rapaport are great in their parts. Malik is a track star on a scholarship who comes to discover that he will need to study hard to get ahead and that his running skills won't be enough to get him through school (or life) successfully. He gets some sage advice from one of his professors played by Laurence Fishburne (the part had originally been offered to none other than Sidney Poitier). Remy is a confused kid that just wants to belong. Rapaport ably demonstrates Remy's growing sense of alienation and hostility until the moment his fuse is lit and you know the movie is about to get bloody.

Although the message of racial harmony (or the lack thereof) is never subtle I agree with my brother that Singleton deserves credit for tackling the subject head on. He doesn't shy away from reality in the manner that the different racial groups separate themselves and view each other with suspicion and a vague distrust. And though the skinheads are the villains, the black kids aren't made out to be saints. As Scott said, Fudge is a big bully that has no consideration for his roommates. The movie ends with the word UNLEARN in big letters across the screen.

Appropriately, the soundtrack is filled with songs by such diverse -and iconic 90's- recording artists as Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Rage Against the Machine, Outkast, Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Raphael Saadiq and Ice Cube.

John Singleton was one of the most promising young directors of that decade. It's too bad he fizzled out so quickly. Boyz n the Hood and Higher Learning are his two best movies. They will stand as time capsules of the state of race relations in 1990's America. Nearly 20 years after its release, Higher Learning remains an interesting, if flawed, motion picture with a powerful climax. 

On a trivia note, am I the only one who thought Cole Hauser was doing Marlon Brando as the skinhead Scott Moss?

Reviewed on: February 16th, 2013
Laurence Fishburne and Kristy Swanson in Higher Learning

Laurence Fishburne and Kristy Swanson in Higher Learning

Higher Learning started out with three very well rounded characters. Malik comes to campus with swag and arrogance. His coach calls him on it and he has to learn some humility. He quickly finds that college is not going to be as easy for him as high school was. Whereas being a high school track star made him something special, he now sees track as another hurdle to get over. The stress gets to him and through Fudge's influence discovers a way to misplace his problems. Blaming white people for his problems alleviates some of his responsibility.

On that same note is Remy. He was not a high school star and comes to college socially unprepared, without the least bit of confidence. You can see it on his face that he wants desperately to make friends but, for what ever reason, cannot fit in. Like Malik, he becomes influenced by someone who teaches him to blame his problems on other people. Malik and Remy would both benefit from Professor Phipps's wisdom, "No one wants to hear excuses or empty rhetoric."

Kristen's story is a bit different, but she still has some lessons to learn. She gets drunk with some other students and ends up in a frat boy's room. The sex is completely consensual until she tells him to use a condom, yet he continues without one. The scene is a bit vague in that it never clearly states if the act was completed before she pushed him off. The scene plays out in such a manner that the "rapist" does not even seem aware of what he has done, until after the fact.

This is where the film starts to go down hill. The boy who "raped" Kristen calls her dorm to assumedly apologize or check on her. Kristen is too traumatized to talk to him and he yells at her roommate, "Black Bitch."  The roommate then gathers a group of black students who take the disheveled Kristen back to the frat house so as to identify and beat the boy up. Not for raping her mind you, but for calling her roommate a "Black bitch."  

From there the skinheads show up out of the dark and Remy becomes less likable. Malik falls for Deja but is too influenced by Fudge's victim mentality to see her way of doing things. Meanwhile, Kristen struggles with her sexuality.  Like Scott, I felt her part should have been cut. It has very little to do with the rest of the film.

What started as a very real look at young people who are, as Patrick wrote, influenced by others, becomes an all out race war. All of the subtle moments were more relevant than the shootings or fighting. Malik sees Kristen as clutching her purse in the elevator to mean she is racist. Malik and Fudge see the police as the enemy. According to Singleton, they only arrest or harass black people. What began as a thought provoking film about different young people each trying to figure things out became a heavy handed film about race.

One of the last lines in the film is spoken by Fishburne, quoting Frederick Douglass, "Without struggle there is no progress." It reminded me of the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."  Both quotes have the same general meaning. We learn from our problems.  However, by the end of Higher Learning, I was not sure what anyone learned. If anything, Malik would likely be even more hate filled than before. This was a big subject for Singleton to tackle, and kudos to him for trying, but I wish it had stayed on more level ground throughout.

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