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.