John Singleton gets the ’95 movie season off to a bold start by writing and directing an unapologetically confrontational film that uses a fictional campus, Columbus University, to represent the racial and sexual powder keg of America. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and Singleton (Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice) can’t begin to weave the disparate elements of his tragic fable into a coherent whole. Higher Learning is often clichéd, unfocused and didactic. But Singleton has a goal most of his contemporaries have given up on: He wants to make a movie that makes a difference.
Blacks, whites, Asians and Latins converge on this campus. At the center is Malik Williams (Omar Epps), a black track star who thinks that running is all the university wants or expects of him. His girlfriend, Deja (model Tyra Banks), tries to tell him differently. So does Professor Phipps (the excellent Laurence Fishburne), who goads him to study. Activist student Fudge (Ice Cube) pushes him to stand up for the brothers. Malik’s confusion intensifies when his roommate, Remy, (Michael Rapaport), a misfit from Idaho, links up with neo-Nazi skinheads and sparks a violent climax involving Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson), a white freshman who didn’t expect her curriculum to include date rape, lesbian passes from Taryn (Jennifer Connelly) and a racially motivated shootout.
Compelling questions of identity are being addressed that you won’t find on Beverly Hills, 90210. Singleton feels for these students — Epps and Rapaport make singularly strong impressions. Higher Learning is seriously intended and seriously flawed. Singleton tends to shout his objectives. But in an era of cop-out escapism, it is gratifying to find a filmmaker who is spoiling to be heard.