Higher Learning in Black and White A Review of John Singleton's New Film

By Pam Prasarttongosoth and Teresa W. Lau

18,000 students. 32 nationalities. 6 races. 2 sexes. 1 campus.
Higher Learning, a film by John Singleton, focuses on a college campus
torn asunder by racial tension. Trailers for the movie promise to show
us what really happens at a university, beyond the viewbooks, course
catalogs, and guided tours. Previews and promotion hint at open and
frank discussion of race and gender. Singleton assures us that Higher
Learning is coming from a new place, taking a clearer look, making a
greater statement; this was going to be the movie of the nineties.
	He said he was going to talk about race, but he meant only
Blacks and whites. He said he would talk about gender, but he only
allowed white women to own that identity. He unexpectedly dealt with
homosexuality, but his treatment was ignorant at best, and insulting
at worst. The film was billed as breaking new ground in an area that
typical filmmakers unfailingly avoided; Higher Learning was going to
confront these issues head-on. But underneath it all, the film, for
the most part, perpetuated Hollywood's conventions, giving his
audience more of the same.
	In the context of Black-white relations, the film is good
about critiquing certain aspects of the old (white) boys' network of
power and privilege. The campus police and fraternities enjoy an
unspoken camaraderie, where loud, raucous parties are allowed to last
until all hours, with the added assurance of protection from any
"unwanted guests." This look-the-other-way attitude on the part of the
police contrasts sharply with the way the Black students are dealt
with on campus. At every turn, police conspicuously request student
IDs from the Black students, even those that are a familiar part of
the campus. Allowed to enjoy these privileges in blissful ignorance,
the frat boys know nothing of the separate world of the Black
community at the university. One white frat brother cries out at a
party, "No one parties like us!", at which point the scene changes to
a similar gathering of Black students. The sum of these kinds of
telltale episodes makes clear the implicit and explicit segregation
and resulting racial tension that affects every interaction between
the Black and white students.
	Highlighting another ugly side of fraternities, the film
depicts the rape of Kristen (Kristy Swanson), a white first-year who
was led (drunk off her ass) to the frat house. As an example of date
rape, the situation is quite realistic in that in her drunken stupor,
Kristen allows the frat boy to mess around with her; but after he
ignores her repeated requests for him to use a condom, she becomes
very distressed, realizing what is happening to her, screaming out,
and finally pushing him off of her and running away. The rape is
constructed in such a way that the audience cannot be sure of what she
wants; after all, she was drunk and she probably wanted it anyway.
What follows this scene, however, makes it clear that this was more
than just "bad sex." Kristen works through her trauma over the course
of the film, debunking myths that rapists cannot be acquaintances,
that they cannot be the popular, all-american types, that we can
somehow tell, on sight, who rapes and who does not.
	While Singleton ensures that the rapist is someone we could
all know, he is rather obtuse when creating the racist in this story.
The son of survivalists, white skinhead Remy (Michael Rappaport) takes
the idea of misfit and outsider to a whole new level. From the moment
he appears on the screen, the entire audience knows that this guy will
eventually go berserk without a great deal of psychiatric attention.
His inexplicable antics range from tearing his own room apart, to
threatening two people with a gun, to studying all night for the first
day of class, to shooting several students on a racist "dare." None of
the motivations or consequences of his actions are explained or
understandable, even for someone who is supposed to be psychotic. The
result is a deranged villain who is neither coherent nor believable.
	By making this character so obviously deranged, so out of the
mainstream, so unable to function around people, Singleton effectively
divorces the story from our reality. We are given permission to remove
ourselves from the possibility of being remotely like this racist.
Rather than isolating the problem to one person no one can recognize,
this character could have, should have, been portrayed as someone we
would like, someone we might invite into our homes, someone we just
might already know. If the audience had seen racists similar to
themselves, perhaps they would have been compelled to grapple with
more personal issues of bigotry and bias that they encounter on a
daily basis. Certain kinds of racists and certain facets of racism are
deemed acceptable or are systematically overlooked. Instead of giving
his audience any insight into racism as a force perpetuated not only
by individuals, but also through institutional policy and societal
norms, Singleton creates a twisted caricature of "the bigot," leaving
the more insidious aspects of racism unacknowledged, unquestioned, and
unchallenged.
	Higher Learning promised to provoke us into finally
confronting the issue of racism on college campuses, but it barely
scratched the surface of the complexities of prejudice and its
manifestations. The overall impact of the film waxes superficial by
failing to force us to question ourselves or our assumptions; the
audience is left to wallow in its complacency. Effectively, we are let
off the hook, because Singleton never gets to the heart of the matter,
choosing instead to overstate his case against deranged Nazis.
Singleton doesn't tell his audience anything that they have not heard
time and again on the subject of relations between Blacks and whites.
Ironically, not only does he poorly address these issues, he balks at
the proposed task of confronting anti-immigrant sentiment that Latinas
and Latinos face, of recognizing tensions between Asians and Blacks,
of exposing the ways the administration pits minority groups against
each other; in other words, of thoughtfully exploring race relations.
	Seldom does Hollywood talk about race as anything more than
Black and white, and Singleton would have demonstrated courage and
insight by seriously considering issues that other people of color
deal with in college. Instead, he seems to only include Asians,
Pacific Islanders, Latinas and Latinos as part of the landscape in an
attempt to avoid criticism for not acknowledging their presence. Asian
Pacific people figure rather prominently as wallpaper; they are in
every classroom and at every assembly, but through the entire movie,
are not given any lines of speech, and hence, can never voice any of
their issues and concerns. Latinas and Latinos received similar
treatment, but with even fewer cameos. Higher Learning could have been
a pioneer; it could have talked about the people who never get talked
about. But through the consistent backseating of the other minority
groups, it was clear that our struggle ranks low on his list of
priorities and things he cares about.
	The way in which Native Americans are dealt with in the film
is especially curious-Singleton takes the time to talk about one
aspect of their oppression, but in a very odd way. Instead of screen
time, Native Americans are graced with lip service from the conscious
Black folk about the injustices they have suffered at the hands of
white conquerors. In a moment of political furor, Malik (Omar Epps)
criticizes the naming of the university after Christopher Columbus,
acknowledging that, hey, Native Americans were oppressed, too. The
irony of Malik's self-righteous ranting, juxtaposed with the glaring
absence of Native Americans at the college, makes this scene seem all
the more self-serving. Current violations against Native American
peoples by US society are completely ignored during Malik's tirade,
and their issues are never mentioned again.
	By offering only superficial, cursory glances towards Asian
Pacific, Latina, and Native American people, Higher Learning
simplifies the issue of race, making every character in the film
either Black or white. It marginalizes everyone else's concerns,
giving the audience a simplistic and incomplete analysis of how
prejudice and oppression operate on a college campus. The film further
reduces Black and white relations to stereotypical representations,
where the boundaries between the two groups are already clear-cut and
well-defined. Never do the white characters, behave in a manner that
challenges assumptions; they remain well within the boundaries of
Singleton's definition of whiteness. The message is clear: Blacks and
whites are Different, a fact proven repeatedly throughout the film.
	Kristen is the white woman of the story and, implicitly, her
behavior is meant to represent what all white women go through during
their college years. After she is raped at the fraternity, she
befriends a white lesbian active in the campus women's group, and they
end up having a romantic relationship. The storyline reinforces both
the notions that women become lesbians because they were abused by men
and that lesbianism is an integral part in the (white) women's
movement. At the same time, Kristen also starts seeing a sensitive,
new-age white man. As the audience witnesses her confusion over her
sexuality, we are meant to realize that this is just what white girls
do: experiment. Homosexuality is not brought up as a vehicle to
discuss sexuality or homophobia, but to serve as a mechanism for
reinforcing the differences between being white and being Black.
	Apparently, only white people have the luxury of worrying
about feminism and sexuality, much lesser concerns for Black people
who spend their time dealing with the "true oppression" of racism. In
the world of Higher Learning, the boundaries for Blackness are very
narrow and strictly enforced: we shouldn't be worrying about who's
doing the dishes until we are free from the yoke of the white man's
oppression, and we certainly can't betray the race and contribute to
its extinction by turning into fairies and bulldykes. Thus it is only
natural that Kristen's Black roommate is consistently and
unrepentantly homophobic. Kristen's relationship with the Lesbian is
met with perplexed disdain and contempt, making it clear that she did
not approve of or accept Kristen's change in behavior. The audience
can make no mistake about it, this sister is not queer. Her aversion
to Kristen's experimenting is never questioned or challenged. The film
makes no real indictment of homophobia; it is so mired in heterosexism
that lesbianism is exhibited as mere spectacle.
	With the reputation of its director and the polemical issues
it purports to deal with, this movie garnered a great deal of
attention and could have made a definitive impact with a resounding,
powerful statement about race and sex in the nineties. But it didn't.
Instead Higher Learning presents us with a simplistic story about
Blacks and whites, creating characters thoughtlessly, tokenizing
racial experiences, giving it that PC edge. Singleton paints in broad
strokes, without depth, complexity, or insight. At a time when
tolerance and acceptance are being villified by the right, this movie
could have delivered an intelligently argued, comprehensive
counter-offensive. Unfortunately, all we leave the theater with is the
bitter taste of missed opportunity.  

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