Until it surrenders to its own worst instincts toward the end, John Singleton's "Higher Learning" is a bracing, invigorating and resolutely fair-minded critique of college education in America.
The site is Columbus University -- the irony of naming the school after the star in the new pantheon of oppressor-chic is one of the film's many heavy-as-uranium strokes -- somewhere in California, an institution so diverse it's nearly tribal. Singleton, who wrote and directed, has no sense of an ivory tower; if the tower is ivory, it was built by African slaves working with materials stolen from the Mother Country. This mythical university seethes with tension and hostility as each group fights desperately for its patch of turf and conceives elaborate theories of entitlement, while a few hapless idealists try to keep the whole thing from exploding.
The movie is itself like a lesson, but of the sort taught in Sunday school, not in higher education. It begins with a black male and a white female alone in an elevator; she grips her purse more tightly, and he sees the racial slight for what it is, accepting it with bitter resignation. By the end of the film, those two embrace out of a passionate loss and in hope for a future of mutual respect. To get to that moment, however, a lot has to happen, most of it unpleasant.
Singleton swoops in the first hour through the culture of C.U. like Robert Altman swooping through "Nashville." There's that same giddy sense of reality and identification as he slides through and neatly evokes fraternity parties, classrooms, dorm bull sessions and so forth -- all the high and low spots of the college experience. He finally settles on his three main characters.
Malik Williams (Omar Epps) is an African-American on a track scholarship who's beginning to awaken intellectually. Under the tutelage of some bitter black students, he comes to see his scholarship as a form of slavery and his acquiescence to its mandates as a form of selling out. In one sense, the higher learning of the title is his as he is torn between two mentors, the bitter "professional student" Fudge (a seething Ice Cube) and the more idealistic poli-sci professor Dr. Phipps (Laurence Fishburne).
The second student is Kristen (played by Kristy Swanson), out of Orange County. She's imagined quite specifically; no spoiled rich princess, she's a working-class young woman trying desperately to get an education, and a life, on severely limited means. She makes false starts in the latter direction, giving up on the party life after a date rape, going the route of sexual experimentation with lesbian-feminist Jennifer Connelly (note: Singleton's conception of a lesbian relationship is the most sexist thing in the movie), and finally settling on a non-threatening male.
It's the third character where Singleton gets into trouble. Remy (Michael Rappaport, of "Zebrahead"), a freshman, is brutalized by the racially vicious Fudge and has to flee his room, his manhood severely withered. It's astute -- and honest -- of Singleton to begin this young man's descent with the acknowledgment that hate breeds hate, and that no one is morally superior on the hate spectrum. But it doesn't take long before Remy has drifted so far that he's absorbed by a marginal cell of moronic white supremacists and snipers, becoming a swastika-beswaddled psycho with a rifle and a head full of hateful nonsense.
This is hardly a true campus problem for African-Americans. If all they have to worry about is Nazi snipers, they're probably going to be all right. But left undramatized by the melodramatic extremes of the sniper plot are the more common and invidious forms of American racism: patronizing, artificially lowered standards, condescension, private sniggering contempt.
Worse, Singleton's imagination for white racism isn't very subtle. These beer-drinking cretins are so self-evidently ludicrous they seem completely unbelievable; and the whole issue feels out of touch with the rest of the movie, as well as with what's going on in colleges. Other absurd touches come to abound in the movie's late going. To name just one, the conceit that campus cops are armed with Berettas and batons like the old L.A.P.D., and are especially vicious toward black gatherings while sweetly tolerant of white gatherings, feels like something out of Selma, Ala., in the '60s, not a USC-style campus in the '90s.
There's also entirely too much heavy-handed "ironic" usage of the American flag as a symbol of hypocrisy and racism, particularly as it appears at the end of the movie with the typewritten word "unlearn" over it. What is Singleton saying: We should unlearn mindless patriotism? Fine. But the flag is also a symbol of unity and sacrifice. Is Singleton saying we should unlearn those virtues and yield instead to tribal impulses?
By its ending, "Higher Education" has become ridiculous and brutal, to no effect whatsoever. It's a movie of limited vision and very little hope for the future. It's too much in love with hate to offer much chance of love.
Starring Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson and Michael Rappaport
Directed by John Singleton
Released by Columbia