B.S. 101

John Singleton's college melodrama Higher Learning is a baffling misfire

Writer-director John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood was a triumph of intimate storytelling--an African-American melodrama set in a bullet-riddled South Central Los Angeles populated by believable characters who possessed strong, simple emotions. While watching it, you knew (except during a couple of "message" scenes) that you were in confident directorial hands; you knew Singleton was a filmmaker who played to his strengths, which were numerous, and that he was also trustworthy. He wasn't going to bend his narrative into pretzels to score political points, or make a character change 180 degrees without warning because his directorial vision required it. The film wasn't the work of a man out to impress audiences with his profound wisdom; it was the work of a man with a story inside him, and a burning urge to get it out.

In contrast, his second movie, Poetic Justice, and his new film, Higher Learning, seem to have been made by a different director--one who's alternately pompous and crass, worldly wise and inexplicably childish. Singleton has apparently abandoned his central strength--direct, uncluttered storytelling--in favor of brainless sociopolitical soapboxing. It's almost as if he read his own press and believed the wrong parts of it--the parts that compared him to Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kramer, and other Message Filmmakers, and the parts that praised him as an Important Artist with an urgent message to deliver to mainstream America. Thus Poetic Justice, which started out as a sweet, rambling look at daily life in the 'hood, was transformed into a misbegotten road picture and pumped full of false seriousness, until it became a forced parable of the struggle between men and women.

By the same misguided reasoning, Higher Learning starts out as a funny, offbeat, realistic, and thoroughly engaging ensemble melodrama about life at a racially diverse college--then turns into a hysterical, apocalyptic mess with echoes of Howard Beach, Kent State, Charles Whitman, Rodney King, and nearly every other domestic atrocity of the past 25 years. The film is so overwrought, so needlessly violent, so crushingly obvious, and so self-contradictory, that it doesn't quite feel like the work of an adult, or even a college student; it feels like the work of a gifted but immature high-school kid trying to write an important drama about college--a kid who lacks the real-world experience to make key details ring true, and fills in the gaps in his experience with borrowed and inappropriate bits from other "powerful" American movies.

The characters are mostly one-dimensional; what depth and stature they gain has more to do with individual performances than with the director's vision. There's a sweet, naive, fence-sitting white girl named Kirsten Connor (Kristi Swanson) who gets raped, then politically activated, then feminized, and then (yes, folks, Singleton really is this crude) temporarily lesbianized. There's Wayne (Jason Wiles), a goofy, long-haired, conciliatory white kid who seems to get along with just about everybody, and his jittery, alienated opposite, Remy, an Idaho white boy (played by Michael Rappaport with understated, nerdy intensity) who finds himself shut out of almost every clique on campus except, unfortunately, the local gang of pumped-up, screed-ranting, gun-toting skinheads. (I wasn't aware of a persistent skinhead element at private colleges, but what the hell.)

There's also a loosely organized black nationalist clique on campus led by an afro-sporting tough guy named Fudge (Ice Cube, who's as snarlingly hilarious as he was in Singleton's first movie), and an African-born political science professor named Phipps (Sir Laurence Fishburne, wrapping his voice around a hilariously expressive veldt-oracle accent on loan from The Lion King).

The most interesting and involving subplot in the movie pits Fudge and Phipps against one another in a struggle for the emerging consciousness of an athletically gifted but academically challenged black track star named Malik Williams (the astonishing Omar Epps, whose wounded eyes, unforced physicality, and naturalistic screen presence reminded me of a young Steve McQueen). When Singleton sticks with Malik, his friends, his gorgeous track-star gal (Tyra Banks), and issues of the heart, he's on firm footing.

But he's clearly not satisfied with matters of the heart. He longs to be taken seriously as a great thinker, a prophet, a filmmaker with an important message to deliver. That Singleton obviously hasn't thought very hard about what that message might be (besides, "We should all try to get beyond first impressions and be nicer to each other, because if we don't, lonely white kids from Idaho will join skinhead groups and start carrying guns to the cafeteria") doesn't seem to trouble him in the least. He mounts setpiece after setpiece with fiery conviction, keeping you engrossed even when you know what you're watching is horse manure that substitutes adult comic-book violence for subtle articulation of real-world college problems. But his desperation to shock the audience eventually destroys the movie--exposes it as a pretentious, incoherent sham. Unlike Do the Right Thing, which built toward a violent ending because the characters and situations demanded one, Higher Learning builds towards a violent ending because the filmmaker demands one.

In a key sequence, professor Phipps lectures Malik on why, as a young black man, he shouldn't feel like just another powerless pawn; on a chess board, Phipps explains, pawns can neutralize more powerful pieces, even maneuver the king into a checkmate situation and profoundly alter the game itself. Unfortunately, the same person who wrote those fine lines has, as a dramatist, flippantly disregarded them.

Singleton treats all his characters as pawns, no more and no less, and he doesn't even play by the rules when he moves them clumsily around. He switches them from one side of the board to the other on a whim, invents nonexistent situations and then solves them with a wave of his hand, and at the end, topples the entire game to the floor in anger and kicks the pieces across the room. It's a disgraceful display of audience disrespect; basically, we're paying money to see a director screw around with human lives, and not very interestingly, either.

Singleton seems to be struggling with a potentially disastrous inferiority complex. Pegged by an unthinkingly racist critical establishment as a competitor of Spike Lee's, he now plays into that same establishment's hands; he's taken two of Lee's most controversial movies, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, and glommed them together, while failing to replicate the humor, heart, or passion of either. The film has the head-scratcher non-ending of the former movie and the explosive climax of the latter, but the two approaches don't mesh, and the result lacks the humor and verve and kinetic enthusiasm Lee's films display even when they make no sense at all. To misquote a favorite college source, Higher Learning is sound and fury signifying nothing--except, perhaps, that Singleton needs to quit trying to explain the world to us and start telling low-key stories about real human beings again, instead of making pretentious botch jobs that feel like a special two-hour episode of "A Different World" directed by Oliver Stone.

Higher Learning. Columbia. Omar Epps, Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Kristi Swanson. Written and directed by John Singleton. Columbia Pictures.

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