Higher Learning is a 1995 drama film, directed and composed by John Singleton. It starred an ensemble cast including Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rapaport, Jennifer Connelly, Ice Cube, and Laurence Fishburne. The movie also featured supermodel Tyra Banks, whose appearance became her first performance in a theatrical movie. The University of California, Los Angeles, otherwise known as UCLA, filled in for the fictional Columbus University, the setting in which the story took place. The soundtrack to the movie included performances by Ice Cube, Tori Amos, and OutKast.
This Columbia Pictures film examines the personal, political, and racial issues of freshman students as they begin their first semester at Columbus University. Malik Williams (Omar Epps) is an African-American student who starts his post-secondary studies believing that his athletic abilities would compensate for his lack of interest towards academics. He soon begins to lose his self-confidence when he experiences financial problems in regards to his track scholarship. Malik eventually forms a relationship with Deja (Tyra Banks), who would also become his school tutor. In addition to his worries about schoolwork, finances, and his new girlfriend, Fudge (Ice Cube), who has been attending Columbus for several years, befriends Malik and challenges his views on systematic racism in America. As tension rises within the multicultural atmosphere of the campus, Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne), Malik’s political science professor, informs Malik that he will not be graded on a different standard simply because of his ability to run quickly or the fact that they are both African-American. When Malik realizes that his success at university does not lie solely on his individual talents and cultural background, he ventures on a journey of self-examination in which he battles the prejudice, bigotry, and racism in the world.
Meanwhile, Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson), a somewhat naïve, young woman from an upper-middle class family in California, enters Columbus University with education as her top priority. However, as Kristen gets more engaged in the social happenings at campus, she becomes influenced to think and act in ways that differ from her personal ideals and values. She then meets a boy named Billy (Jay R. Ferguson) after drinking too much at a party and becomes a victim of sexual abuse. To help her overcome the distressing incident, Kristen joins an organization called “Students for a Non-Sexist Society” which Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), a junior, invited her to become a member of when she first met Kristen. As Kristen gets to know more about Taryn, she discovers that she is a lesbian and finds herself becoming attracted to her. Kristen then expresses the importance of embracing the genders, sexual orientations, social backgrounds, races, and cultures of all people by hosting a Columbus Peace Festival.
Furthermore, Remy (Michael Rapaport) is a quiet, young man from the Midwest who feels out of place in the highly populated campus of the university. He is approached by Scott Moss (Cole Hauser), a member of a movement that believes in white superiority, and persuades him to carry out his group’s violent plans to dehumanize ethnic minorities. Remy inevitably stirs up racial tensions among the staff and students at Columbus, causing a ripple effect throughout the community.
John Singleton’s Higher Learning is an insightful and thought-provoking story about university students who face intolerance, harassment, and peer pressure, among the many, common issues that individuals undergo throughout their lifetimes. It is a realistic portrayal of members in society who have experienced and are still experiencing discrimination and exploitation, including ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals. This being said, the movie does have a few shortcomings, including the lack of portrayal of Native people, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Singleton should have incorporated more major characters of these racial backgrounds in order to produce a complex and captivating plot that is more universal. Because the movie has several elements of alcohol and drugs, sex and nudity, violence and gore, profanity, and frightening and intense scenes, some young viewers may not be emotionally stable enough to handle its mature themes. Thus, some audiences may not appreciate Higher Learning and describe it as inappropriate and unsuitable for viewers. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend this 1995 motion picture to those who are willing to see true to life examples of the destruction and confusion that can result from such ignorance and narrow-mindedness. With its captivating storyline and breathtaking performances, it proves to be not only a movie, but a glimpse of the real world beyond our doorsteps. Therefore, Higher Learning is an invitation to the deeper human emotions, influencing audience members to develop a forward-thinking perspective on themselves and society.
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