Release Date(s)1995 (February 5, 2019)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: C
In Higher Learning, the fictional Columbus University serves as a microcosm of America and its multi-ethnic, multicultural diversity. Columbus is a progressive institution that draws together young men and women from all walks of life, and racial tensions often simmer, sometimes boiling over into conflict. With students trying to find their way in life and developing a sense of identity, the campus is the scene of cultural clashes, confusion, and volatility.
Malik (Omar Epps), a runner on a partial sports scholarship, struggles academically and feels his worth is equated with his athletic performance. Kristen (Kristy Swanson), date-raped by a frat boy, is dealing with sexual ambiguity. Remy (Michael Rapaport), a loner from Idaho, tries to fit in but finds students hang out in their own cliques. Political science teacher Prof. Phipps (Laurence Fishburne) is a stern educator who fails to sympathize with Malik’s feeling of victimization. Fudge (Ice Cube), the unofficial leader of the black students, sees examples of inequality on campus and refuses to accept them.
Writer/director John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) sets the location and takes time introducing its atmosphere and main characters. This is not your sitcom college, but one in which real-life problems occur. Though Singleton exaggerates the tensions for dramatic effect, they ring true. He addresses several customarily taboo subjects without sidestepping or sweetening them. By limiting the action to a college campus, he can single out a few individuals with diverse stories at a pivotal point in their lives, representing a wider universe.
Performances are uniformly first-rate. Epps is a stand-out as the conflicted Malik, who learns that succeeding in life takes more than making good time on the track. He conveys an arrogance that gradually softens as Prof. Phipps refuses to accept his “world is against me” tale of woe and wisely counsels him on how to fulfill his potential. Later, Malik becomes incensed when he sees how blacks are marginalized on campus and refuses to let the indignities slide.
Rapaport, in an early role, conveys his character’s hick rube persona, eliciting sympathy, since all Remy wants is to find a place for himself but consistently fails. Though we’re horrified that he takes up with a neo-Nazi faction, we understand. It’s the only organization that has embraced him. Hate groups didn’t rank as major threats on campus when the film was made (1995), so that plot thread seems prescient in the wake of Charlottesville.
Ms. Swanson’s performance is especially timely because of recent news reports of campus date rape following heavy drinking. The depiction is graphic and brutal.
There’s a lot going on in Higher Learning. Maybe too much. In his eagerness to paint a picture of the problems that arise when diverse groups are thrown together, he tends to sensationalize. The tone of the film lacks balance. The scenes with Malik and his professor are beautifully written and acted and feel authentic, and Kristen’s traumatic rape is handled sympathetically without making rape less than horrific. But a scene in which a group of black students march to a frat house to confront its members because one of them referred to a black student on the telephone with an insulting tirade, appears contrived. We get that they are upset by the indignity, but the sequence has a theatrical flavor.
The Blu-ray release features 1080p resolution. Aspect ratio is 1.85:1. Visual quality is generally quite good. The outdoor campus scenes benefit from the rich green grass and leafy trees as well as the multi-colored clothing of the students. Outdoor scenes are shot either during sunny daylight or at night, giving off a bluish hue. Dorm scenes are more muted, and often are lit rather ominously – a foreshadowing of things to come.
Audio is English 5.1 DTS-HD. Balance is good, with dialogue dominating outdoor scenes. Ambient sound believably suggests a bustling college campus. The very first scene involves a school rally in which the band plays and students listen. The band is loud and immediately draws the viewer into the environment as Malik, a new student, walks through the mostly white crowd. Music is integral to the film. It’s heard in dorm rooms and at parties to reflect the backgrounds of the listeners, and helps convey mood. A few gun shots are “sweetened” to sound more dramatic. Available also is a French audio track in Dolby Surround as well as English SDH subtitles.
The only bonus feature on the Blu-ray release is the director’s commentary.
Commentary – Writer/director John Singleton says that the genesis of Higher Learning occurred when he was an undergrad at USC. At that time, he was writing screenplays. Jonathan Demme was interested in making a film about campus life and had talks with Singleton. That project fell through, and Singleton decided to make it as his third feature, after Boyz N the Hood and Poetic Justice. He wanted to make a non-ghetto movie that addressed issues of race and class. “It was a fun film to do” and was instrumental in “getting my rhythm as a filmmaker.” All actors in the cast got along even though their characters didn’t always see eye to eye. Singleton based the movie on his own experiences at USC. Laurence Fishburne had just been nominated for an Academy Award when the classroom scene was filmed. The differing outlooks on life of black Americans and West Indies blacks is compared. Tyra Banks was Singleton’s girlfriend at the time, and he comments on how uncomfortable it was to see her play romantic scenes with another guy while maintaining his director’s professionalism. He discusses subtle transitions in the movie that are so fluid, audiences are not even aware of them. In an early scene, Singleton – protective of the dialogue he had written – was unhappy with Omar Epps’ delivery, noting that he mumbled his lines. Referring to Higher Learning and the character of Malik, Singleton notes “My films are very personal. That young man is a metaphor of me.” Singleton has an irritating habit of inserting a “You know” before, in the middle of, and at the end of sentences. This is annoying and distracting for a commentary.
– Dennis Seuling