Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Higher Learning (1995)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - Question the Knowledge

Kristy Swanson, Omar Epps and Michael Rapaport star as first-term freshmen who get a crash course in diversity, identity and sexuality in writer/ director John Singleton's bold look at contemporary college life. Also starring Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Jennifer Connelly and Tyra Banks.

Director: John Singleton
Cast: Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rapaport, Jennifer Connelly, Ice Cube, Jason Wies, Tyra Banks, Cole Hauser, Laurence Fishburne
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1& Dolby Surround 2.0; French, Spanish, Portuguese Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Korean, Thai, Chinese; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; rated R; 127 min.; $19.95; street date 7/3/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary With Director John Singleton; Theatrical Trailers; Filmographies.
Purchase: DVD | The John Singleton Collection | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/B+/C+

After a few smaller, apparently more personal flicks, director John Singleton decided to broaden his scope with 1995ís Higher Learning. Actually, I suppose that itís not correct to imply that HL wasnít close to his heart as well, for much of the material seems to have been based on Singletonís own experiences.

In any case, HL went down a path that took on bigger issues and concerns than those featured in his earlier films. Does it do so successfully? For the most part, although I felt that Singleton fell short of the mark during much of the movie.

At the start of Higher Learning, we meet a slew of characters, but the film focuses on three freshmen at Columbus University. Malik (Omar Epps) comes from low-rent origins, and heís made it there on a track scholarship; he also clearly acts as Singletonís surrogate for the movie. Kristen (Kristy Swanson) has some money problems as well, but sheís from posh Orange County California, which is far from Malikís roots. Lastly, Remy (Michael Rapaport) arrives from Idaho; heís the whitest white-bread boy one could imagine.

These three are surrounded by a bevy of others who influence their experiences, and be sure of one thing: all of them go through quite a lot of experiences. Overall, the plot seems to be fairly free-form, as Singleton attempts to cram in many actions without any overriding storyline. Clearly he wants to make the film realistic and show how things work at college.

In that regard, he only succeeds part of the way. Singleton tries to make a big statement, and thatís why HL can come across as heavy-handed and melodramatic. An awful lot happens to these kids in a very brief period of time. All of these occurrences are the sorts of things that indeed do take place on college campuses, but it seems to stretch matters to have all of them happen so close together chronologically among kids who all know each other. Fictional CUís supposed to be a big school, and it appears unlikely that so many of these events would befall an interrelated group of students.

Still, the drama helps make the story interesting, and at times Singleton is able to draw some good insight into situations. Unfortunately, some of these aspects are slightly negated by fairly stereotypical characters. Our three semi-leads fit pretty neatly into their little categories. Malik is the semi-ignorant black one who starts to become more racially self-aware, primarily due to the influence of eternal student Fudge (Ice Cube). Remy takes a similar path, though down a darker street. Heís the isolated country boy who only finds acceptance via some white supremacists; there his anger towards the way others treat him discovers an outlet. As for Kristen, sheís the quite suburban girl who gets a rude awakening when a date rapes her. This makes her more socially conscious as well, though she takes a gentler route as she gets involved with campus womenís and peace organizations.

The characters they meet along the way generally fall into stereotypical categories as well, from the keg-chugging frat boys to the racist, violent cops to the rap-blasting, antagonistic boyz from the hood. Although Singletonís empathies clearly tend toward the black characters - as I noted, Malik clearly represents the director in this tale - I didnít think most of the others were treated as poorly as others believe. I checked out different takes on HL before I wrote this, and some folks definitely thought Singleton slammed all the white characters but let off the black ones without any negative characteristics.

I disagree with those conclusions. Yes, the film does occasionally make out the white participants to be less sympathetic. Itís no mistake that the only truly nasty characters - such as the cops and the skinheads - are white, but it is incorrect to assume that some of the others lack nuance. The frat boy who rapes Kristen seems less like a force of evil than just a drunken lout; what he did was clearly wrong, but the situation wasnít as one-sided as some might indicate.

All of our leads take some apparently-negative turns, though Kristenís changes are the least dark. Her problems are more insular as she attempts to get past her rape, and she eventually uses her demons for good as she takes a part in positive rallies.

Obviously Remyís shift is the nastiest of the three. He goes from geeky, lonely guy to murderous Nazi. Some have taken this as another example of Singletonís heavy-handed anti-white viewpoint, but I disagree. To be certain, Remy becomes a malevolent character, but he retains some level of compassion along the way because we are able to see the forces that influence his behavior. While this isnít a sympathetic portrait, it seems less one-sided than some indicate, and it demonstrates how monsters are made, not born.

Since heís the directorís proxy, one might think that Malik gets off easily, and clearly some viewers do feel that way. However, I disagree. As he becomes more involved in ďblack awarenessĒ, he starts to develop racist tones of his own, and the Malik we see toward the end of the movie is a less open-minded and likeable person. He seems more strident and eager to blame others for his problems as he takes less responsibility. Some may see this as Singletonís condemnation of the system, but I felt it was more of a call for the Maliks of the world to stop complaining and do something.

Ultimately, Higher Learning wasnít a great film because it stuck too closely to various stereotypical notions, and it also tried too hard to pack a huge variety of events into a short period of time. However, I thought it was a provocative piece that had a lot of interesting things to say, and the result was deeper than some appear to think. No, it doesnít merit consideration along with richer films like Do the Right Thing, but Higher Learning had some positives in its own right.

The DVD:

Higher Learning appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not without flaws, as a whole the film looked genuinely terrific.

Sharpness always appeared to be crisp and well-defined. Even during the movieís wide shots, the image remained distinct and accurate, and I detected no signs of softness or haziness. Moirť effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and print flaws seemed to be very minor. On occasion, I saw a few examples of speckles and grit, but these were rare, and that only occurred during a few shots. The picture also presented one or two small nicks. However, as a whole, the movie presented a clean picture.

From the filmís opening shot of the American flag through the purple uniforms of the Columbus University band to a wide array of other scenes, colors appeared to be nicely vivid and bold. Throughout the film, these hues were clean and accurate, and they added quite a lot of life to the image. Black levels appeared deep and dense, while shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. Ultimately, Higher Learning offered a very satisfying visual experience.

Also strong was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Higher Learning. Since this was a fairly insular character piece, I didnít expect a charged soundfield, but the result worked well for the material. Music dominated the track, as the score showed fine stereo separation in the front channels. The surrounds also nicely reinforced these elements, and they presented an encompassing and dynamic presentation.

Effects provided a less-involving aspect of the mix, but they bolstered the track well. The movie mainly stayed with general ambience, and this added a moderately realistic tone to the piece. During louder scenes, the track popped to life in a modest way, and the filmís climax showed some nicely engrossing aspects. However, the overall impact of the soundfield remained fairly quiet but solid.

Audio quality appeared to be consistently positive. Dialogue sounded natural and warm, and speech demonstrated no problems related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects seemed to be clear and accurate, and they packed a modest punch when necessary; gunfire and other louder elements came across as distinct and realistic. Music remained the star of the show, as the score and the various tunes played all appeared to be bright and dynamic. The track boasted very nice bass response when appropriate, and the overall impression I received was of a clean, concise presentation. Higher Learning wonít win any prizes for its soundtrack, but I felt the mix worked quite well.

Although Higher Learning doesnít include a slew of extras, it does give us a few supplements. Most significant was an audio commentary from director John Singleton, who provided a running, screen-specific affair. This was the first track Iíd heard from Singleton, as he didnít offer a track on Shaft, which makes it the only film of his to lack one. The DVDs for Poetic Justice and Rosewood included a commentaries, and though itís not on DVD, the old Criterion laserdisc of Boyz N the Hood.

As such, Singleton seemed to be very at home with the format, and he offered a fairly provocative and informative piece. At times he appeared to be rather full of himself as he related how good he felt the movie was, but he also picked out some of its flaws; he remained very pleased with it, but that tone didnít become overwhelming. Singleton gave us a rather frank and open discussion of the film, and he added a lot of personal insight and useful anecdotes. Much of HL was based on his own college experiences, so it was good to learn the roots of the piece. I also was very happy that he actually named names when he referred to actors heíd originally wanted in some of the roles; many commentaries omit these details, so Iím always pleased to learn the facts. Ultimately, Singletonís track had some overly self-congratulatory moments, but it usually seemed to be very stimulating and revealing.

Lastly, the DVD includes a few more ordinary extras. We find basic Filmographies for director Singleton plus actors Epps, Swanson, Rapaport, Ice Cube, Jennifer Connelly, Tyra Banks and Laurence Fishburne. In addition, there are trailers for HL as well as Singletonís Boyz In the Hood and Poetic Justice.

In Higher Learning, John Singleton attempts a broad and engaging look at the problems found on college campuses. The result is intermittently successful and has its flaws, but as a whole it was fairly compelling and interesting. The DVD offers terrific picture and solid sound plus a minor roster of extras highlighted by a fairly useful audio commentary. Ultimately, Higher Learning didnít seem to reach all of its goals, but it did well enough to merit a viewing.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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