Good as far as it goes

Issue 

Higher Learning
Starring Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Jennifer Connelly and Ice Cube
Written and directed by John Singleton
Screening at Hoyts cinemas
Reviewed by Sean Moysey

The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 18 and the arrest of a paramilitary white supremacist bear parallels to a theme in Higher Learning. I found the film to be a decent attempt at examining social issues in a holistic way. The realistic aspects of Higher Learning impressed me in the same way as Once Were Warriors.

Higher Learning gives a current taste of questions of race, sexuality and alienation in the US. If it had gone a little deeper, it could have raised issues of class as well, but that was left to a simple division of rich and poor. The premise of Higher Learning is that university is a microcosm of society. Notably the film's sound track provides the diversity required to reflect this microcosm.

This is one of those "we should get together" films, which is good, but after watching a hundred films that end on a note of "getting together", I begin to wonder when a film will be made that begins with that theme and ends in eliminating oppression.

A positive aspect is the film's portrayal of political activity. Kristy Swanson's character, Kristen, organises meetings and hands out leaflets to receptive students. It's not Berkeley in the '60s, but it does promote progressive organisation.

Two interesting characters are Fudge, played by Ice Cube, and Scott (Cole Hauser). Scott is the leader of a fascist group who knows how to tap into the psyche of alienated white youth. I'm compelled to mention that Hauser copies Marlon Brando's accent in the original version of A Street Car Named Desire.

Ice Cube, infamous rap artist, is himself. Proudly sporting an unbridled afro, he breaks into short political soliloquies. Fudge promotes education for liberation rather than grades. At one point, I thought the plot was shaping up to be just a black vs white battle: Fudge's group vs Scott's group. Fortunately one of Fudge's soliloquies shows the film makers to be beyond that simple formula.

Sexuality is also a theme, and the relationship between Kristen and Taryn (Jennifer Connelly) is handled in a liberal manner. Taryn is a lesbian; Kristen is experimenting with her sexuality. Taryn is also a leader of a women's group in which Kristen becomes involved. At face value it is well done, but I suspect it draws on a stereotype of placing questions of lesbian sexuality exclusively in the sphere of women's groups.

Gay men feature only in a three second grab. It would've been a risky gamble for Singleton to approach mainstream audiences with a black male lead exploring homosexuality. As for Kristen, the purposefully unresolved hetero/homo balance in her exploration keeps her sexuality within the spectrum of heterosexuality. In this sense, I think Madonna's work set the boundaries of outrageousness.

Another problem I have with the film is its portrayal of African Americans as "radicals" and Anglo Americans as "liberals". Even black liberals seem to be presented in a "radical" light, and no whites seem capable of thinking progressive radical thoughts.

Class is almost always sidestepped or distorted into something else in mainstream film. For example, I once caught an episode of the US television show, Donahue, which was called "My black kid acts white, My white kid acts black". It was obvious to me that the children described reflected their material and geographical environment. Children of wealthy business people who grow up in Bel Air act differently from children who grow up in South Central LA, whatever the colours. Donahue and the league of Freudian theorists had to invent untenable psychological complexes to avoid the existence of classes and the resulting socialisation.

Higher Learning will get your emotions going and should open a few minds, preferably to higher organisation.