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HIGHER LEARNING

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Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jennifer Connelly, Ice Cube, Omar Epps, Michael Rapaport, Kristy Swanson, Laurence Fishburne
Director: John Singleton
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, French, Spanish & Portuguese Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Commentary, Theatrical Trailers
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: July 3, 2001

“You gotta get that ‘We Are the World’ crap outta your head, cause it ain’t gonna happen on this campus.”

Film ***1/2

Director John Singleton’s own personal experience at USC is somewhat reflected at the heart of his third movie, Higher Learning. When attending the school, Singleton reflected mainly that all of the minorities attending, black, white, Asian, or Hispanic stuck to their own on the campus. Singleton took this notion and has applied it to a provocative and very powerful movie about the dark side of campus life, particularly that of racial differences. The added element of an exploited subplot involving a nazi skinhead group makes it even more intriguing.

The movie centers on three central characters that each endure a tragic or life-changing event while attending Columbus University. There’s Malik (Omar Epps), a young black man who’s attending on an athletic scholarship, a young white woman named Kristen (Kristy Swanson), and a young white man named Remy (Michael Rapaport). While it’s clear that they are in college to learn about the world, the campus itself will teach the real lessons to them. Malik has the appearance of your usual athletic type of student, which is cocky, arrogant, and constantly feeling as if you don’t owe the world anything. His perspectives are challenged through two people, fellow student Fudge (Ice Cube), and the wise, eccentric Professor Phipps (Laurence Fishburne)

Kristen is a pretty young blonde who has no problem fitting in at first. In fact, it’s fitting in that perhaps plays a role in her ordeal. Following an evening of heavy drinking, she is the victim of a heinous rape. She doesn’t report the rape, but it haunts her every move following the event. She soon finds a comfort in a new female friend named Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), who heads a feminist group and is also an open lesbian. Kristen has not only discovered a new close friend, but a possible love interest that wouldn’t dare harm her like she has just been done so.

Remy (Michael Rapaport) is a quiet, geeky engineer who enrolled at Columbus to take courses and learn a profession. But his social life is barren and no one seems to understand him, except a group of shaven-headed young men who claim he's one of them. It doesn't take much convincing before the lonely Remy joins the skinheads and embraces their racist creed.

I suppose it’s one of those cases where either you buy the scenario or you don’t. I found Higher Learning to be a rivetingly performed, and extremely powerful drama, directed with a keen eye by Singleton, who is able to apply racial problems to any setting and have the viewer engrossed in the intense drama. The climax is a surprisingly violent one, but at the same time it is very pogniant, and it offers a tragic and real emotionally turn for most of its characters. As far as social commentary goes, Higher Learning is as hard as they come, and John Singleton is one director who can offer social commentary with a real open eye!

Video ***1/2

Columbia Tri Star offers yet another very impressive video job on its transfer for Higher Learning. Presented in an anamorphically enhanced presentation, the picture quality is thoroughly sharp and crisp, say for a couple of scenes in darkly lit settings, which appear a bit soft. Other than that, the transfer on Higher Learning is of true high quality.

Audio ***1/2

An equal level of praise on the audio field. Columbia Tri Star delivers a near four star audio job with the 5.1 digital presentation, which surprised me a whole lot with how superior it sounded, given that Higher Learning is not an action movie, or special effects movie. The music played in the movie is indeed the high point of the disc, as is the intense climax of the movie. An all around surprisingly stunning sounding disc from CTS!

Features **1/2

The highlight is a thoroughly intriguing commentary track from John Singleton, where you learn how the idea for this film came about and how it somewhat resembled his college life at USC. Also included are trailers for this film, and two other John Singleton films, Boyz N the Hood and Poetic Justice.

Summary:

A thought provoking film at best, Higher Learning is a film to watch and learn from, even though these problems may not be at large in this day and age on college campus. As a real life movie, or a what if kind of movie, it is thoroughly engaging nonetheless.