Higher Learning: John (Boyz N’ the Hood) Singleton’s

“Question the knowledge,” commands the colorful poster for director John Singleton’s new movie, Higher Learning, a tale in which the campus of Columbus, a fictitious name for a major urban university, is used as a microcosm for American society, where people of every race, color and creed live and learn together.

A contemporary drama that charts one semester in the lives of some students, Higher Learning confronts such potentially important political issues as personal identity, cultural diversity, and the social ills of sexism, racism, and escalating violence.

John Singleton is still the youngest filmmaker to ever be nominated for a directorial Oscar, for Boyz N’ the Hood, the smash hit movie that was an international success in both its film and video versions. In this film, Singleton has recreated with realism a modern college campus: the classrooms, frat parties, crib shakers, financial aid offices, recreational rooms, dormitories, track-field, and the cafeteria.

Singleton is one of the few American directors who write original screenplays for his movies. In this saga, he interweaves three stories about three different youngsters who are at once commonly experienced as types, but also function as unique individuals of their own creation.

Former high-school track star Malik Williams (played by the young attractive actor Omar Epps) thinks he can cruise through his first year of college–until he learns he has to run faster and harder to earn his track scholarship. In the course of the film, Malik learns that, unfortunately, in the eyes of the university, his “worth” as a student is equaled only with the time he spends on the track.

The dates that sexy first-year student Kristen Connor’s (Kristy Swanson) had in high school were different–they always stopped when she said no. But in Columbus, she’s suddenly subjected to the horrible experience of a rape date.

Singleton describes the character of Kristen as “a middle-class white girl from Orange County whose family prospered in the 1980s through the aerospace industry. But now they’re falling on hard times and she’s trying to find herself as a person. She comes to college understanding that life is going to be harder for her than it was with mom and dad. Kirsten gets date-raped and she falls in love with another woman–all new, eye-opening experiences she never thought would happen to her.”

The third main character, Remy (Michael Rapaport), thought college would be like one big party–until he learns that if there is a party somewhere, he’s not invited. Insecurity and inferiority complex push him to join a radical political group and turn irresponsibly violent.

Singleton describes Higher Learning as being less about a particular college campus than about the “larger social context of America.” “You have all these different types of people from different races, different cultures, different countries, different sexual orientations, living together in one place,” he says. “A great deal of combustibility comes out of that, whether it’s a campus or country.”

“Malik is on a search in his life,” says actor Epps. “He has a natural passion for running and running is all he knows, so he puts all his energy into it. But when he begins to feel like the school’s prize racehorse, his life sort of falls apart. They don’t want him to study; they don’t want him to question; they only want him to run, run, run.”

Epps perceptively underlines the conflict faced by many young black athletes, namely “the lure of money.” “They’re encouraged to get a lot of money while it’s there–and this can make you lose track of your passion.”

The three main protagonists are not isolated; several people act as forces in their lives. Black professor Phiffs (Lawrence Fishburne) and a career student, Fudge (Ice Cube), act as guide points in Malik’s life. “Malik’s wake up-call is Fudge,” says Epps, “He’s the super senior in this school. He schools the brothers that have potential.”

“The film takes a real approach to what you’ll find on a college campus,” says actor/rap artist Cube, who also played a role in Singleton’s Boyz N’ the Hood. “You get to see the middle, you get to see the extreme on one side, the extreme on the other side, the radical, sexual, academic, and financial things going on. College is a place where all ideas get to simmer.”

Professor Phipps is another guidepost to many of the students at Columbus University. Larry Fishburne (who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the biopicture, What’s Love Gotta to Do) sees Phipps and Fudge as being similar in that they both “have all the stuff they need to go out and deal with the real world. However, they both choose to stay within the safety of college environment.”

Phipps is not only an educator, but also a role model for Malik. Fishburne explains: “I thought it would be interesting to have Phipps be partial to this kid, because he’s a black male in desperate need of a positive role model.” At the same time, Fishburne stresses that “because of his position as an educator, Phipps can’t show favoritism. He wants the kid to learn.” “Who they choose to learn from, and what they choose to take in as information, is up to the students; but it’s all there for them at the university.”

The experience of shooting the film had an interesting effect on the lives of the cast members. “It’s been more like a journey than a film,” says Epps. “Everyone, from the executives to the grips involved, had a common goal; it was a feeling that we were a part of history. There was one breath instead of a whole bunch of different breaths.”

Says Fishburne: “I think John Singleton is really very courageous in his attempt to address all the issues that he does with this film.” “The whole idea of having a group of Neo-Nazis and a group of very Afro-centric men, one woman who’s lesbian and one who’s thinking about experimenting with that lifestyle, all of this on screen in confrontational l995, is new for a picture–and very bold. But these things go on, these people exist in pockets around our country, and to bring them to the college setting is the perfect metaphor for the country at large.”

“The idea behind High Learning is that you got to take everything you learn a step higher,” concludes the 21 year-old Epps. “That’s my personal interpretation. You can’t just scratch the surface of things; you can’t just believe what you’re told; you have to know the truth for your own sake.”

Singleton, Epps and the rest of the cast hope that Higher Learning will force students and their parents to rethink the value of education in American universities–and in American society at large.