Film: Higher Learning

Unlearn.

The third film by Oscar-nominated director John Singleton, following Boyz n the Hood and Poetic Justice. It's often considered Singleton's first "white" film, although the main protagonist is still black.

Malik Williams (Omar Epps), Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson), and the mysterious "Remy" (Michael Rapaport) are freshmen at the fictional Columbus University somewhere in Southern California. While at first glance the school appears to be a highly idealistic, utopian sort of place, there are seething undercurrents just below the surface that will become more prominent over time. Surveying the campus's colorful mosaic of student life is Dr. Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne), a West Indian immigrant turned political science professor who mentors both Malik and Kristen.

As the story progresses, three lives gradually come to be changed forever. Malik becomes more and more disillusioned with the supposed promise offered by higher education, while Kristen and Remy are both radically transformed by their sometimes traumatic and always bewildering experiences.

Also features rapper Ice Cube as the charismatic Fudge, and Jennifer Connelly as the feminist Taryn.

This film contains examples of:

  • All There Is to Know About "The Crying Game": About the only two scenes that people tend to remember about this movie (assuming they remember anything about it) are Kristen and Taryn kissing on top of Taryn's bed and Remy crouched on the roof of a campus building clutching a sniper rifle (because the scene was parodied in Don't Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood).
  • Anger Montage: Remy trashing his dorm room after Malik calls him names.
  • Bald of Evil: The neo-Nazi skinheads, of course.
  • Bi the Way: It's never really made clear if Kristen is actually bisexual or just curious. Aside from the merest teasing of a sexual relationship with Taryn (although it's implied that they did), some hand holding, and a kiss (which may or may not have really happened), we only actually see her have sex with men. Of course when she was having sex with her boyfriend she was thinking of Taryn.
    • This lends a dollop of Fridge Brilliance to this scene in which Dr. Phipps is discussing his students' various backgrounds.
    Dr. Phipps (to Kristen): What are you?
  • Black Comedy Rape: Granted, it's at the expense of the rapist rather than the victim herself-but it's still quite jarring.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Deja, after she's shot
  • Book Ends: The movie starts with Malik and Kristen in an elevator together, with Kristen clutching her purse and Malik quietly offended. The two never share a scene again until the end, as Kristen mourns the deaths from festival she planned, and Malik comforts her. They both note that it’s funny that they’ve never spoken before, despite both being in Phipps' class and knowing many people in common. Ultimately, these scenes are meant to demonstrate their mutual Character Development.
  • Bow Chicka Wow Wow: Rare non-ironic post-1970s example (it's used to underscore tense or turbulent scenes.)
  • Bully Hunter: Remy is a deconstruction. Although a victim of bullying, the targets of his wrath progress from the bullies themselves (Fudge and his friends) to black people in general to non-white people in general to all of the above people and fellow whites who do not subscribe to his neo-Nazi views. No wonder that he finally decides to Kill 'em All.
  • But Not Too Gay: Kristen and Taryn are barely even allowed to kiss onscreen.
  • Cool Teacher: Professor Phipps
  • Cluster F-Bomb: When Remy finally snaps and pulls a gun on both Malik and a Jewish student.
  • Downer Ending: Remy and Deja are dead, Kristen's dream of bringing peace to the campus has been cruelly shattered, and Malik decides he's had enough and decides to drop out of school.
  • Eagleland: More of a Deconstruction of Type 1 than a representation of Type 2. It is meant to show that beneath America's diversity there still simmers great division, suspicion and misunderstanding.
  • Everything Is Racist: Both Malik and Remy come to view the world through this lens.
  • Genius Bruiser: For such a ne'er-do-well, Fudge sure is enamored with black literature.
  • Groin Attack: Remy to Malik during their second fight.
  • Heroic BSOD: Malik suffers two. The first comes right after Deja is shot, but he “recovers” enough to go after Remy. Malik then suffers another one after Remy kills himself, when he sees Professor Phipps, who confirms Deja’s death.
  • Innocent Bigot: Kristen. Having grown up in a community with scarcely any black people, she at first thinks of Malik as a Scary Black Man (which he eventually becomes later in the film, but that's another matter) and becomes visibly afraid when he gets on an elevator with her (Malik just contemptuously rolls his eyes.) And even after embracing student activism, Kristen still comes off as prejudiced when she tells a sympathetic male character that he can't join a non-sexist student group because....well, because he's a man (i.e., men are naturally sexist). He calls her out on her hypocrisy, though, and she realizes her mistake.
  • Jerk Jock: Deconstructed. Much of Malik's swaggering attitude stems from feelings of inadequacy, which in turn can be traced both to his being awarded only a partial scholarship to Columbus and to the other athletes on the track team, who resent him for the supposed pampering he received from his coaches in high school.
  • Karma Houdini: Billy never gets punished for raping Kristen. He is punished by Fudge and his gang for directing a slur at Monet, but he is never arrested by the police. In fact, the police actually save him from Fudge's men!
  • Kick the Dog: Remy calls one of the neo-Nazis a "faggot" for trying to secretly befriend him. True, it's a Nazi he's directing this slur at, so it's something of an inversion-but it still makes clear that there is great anger within Remy, and that he's not as innocent as he first appears.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: Billy (the frat boy rapist) gets beaten up for the wrong reason, but he still arguably had it coming.
  • Malcolm Xerox: Fudge
  • Meaningful Name: The character of Deja (French for "already") has apparently Seen It All and tends to take most things in stride. She is always trying to get the agitated Malik to calm down.
  • Murder-Suicide: Remy’s rampage ends up being this, though committing suicide didn’t seem to be part of the original plan.
  • Not So Different: See Everything Is Racist above.
  • N-Word Privileges: Fudge seems to think he has them.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Deliberately evoked in the very first post-credits image of the film, but then deconstructed throughout the rest of the movie.
  • Peaceful in Death: Terribly subverted with Deja. She had blood pouring out of her mouth and was crying hysterically. Her ultimate death, though, occurs off-screen.
  • Police Brutality: Malik is twice attacked and handcuffed by the campus police, despite both times being the victim of Remy’s racist violent attacks.
    • Averted though when the police confront Remy after his shooting spree and fight with Malik. In this instance, the police try to calm Remy down and assure him everything will be okay. The head police officer is quite devastated when Remy ends up killing himself. This, however, is meant to further demonstrate the racist nature of the (campus) police.
  • Positive Discrimination: Yes and no. While it's true that the movie has a black protagonist given top billing and thus by default is going to be sympathetic to the black perspective, Singleton at first (with a few exceptions) avoids turning any character into a clear hero or villain, establishing that they're all capable of Jerkass behavior at times (and, ironically, when we first meet him, Remy comes off as the most sympathetic character!) Singleton eventually makes the neo-Nazis the stereotyped villains, of course, but what's remarkable is not that this trope is present in the movie at all, but that it's applied so sparingly for a 1990s Hollywood film.
  • Put Them All Out of My Misery: Remy is either a Type 2 (q.v.) or a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds.
  • Rape and Switch: After being raped by Billy, Kristen develops a close relationship with Taryn and REALLY wants to sleep with her. Subverted when she starts dating (and has sex with) a guy around the same time.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Columbus University is a metaphor for Americaget it?!
    • Ends—for no reason—with marching band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a shot of Prof. Phipps walking under an American flag.
  • Salt and Pepper
    • Kristen and her roommate, Monet.
    • Also literally invoked by an interracial couple at a Halloween costume party.
    • See also Professor Phipps's repeated line: "Peppermint?"
  • Scary Black Man: Played with:
    • Deconstructed in Malik’s treatment by campus police and Kristen’s first reaction to him, despite in neither case Malik being unjustifiably aggressive.
    • Played straight and exaggerated in the fight between the black students and skinheads. Busta Rhymes beats up two of the skinheads at the same time, and the large, overweight black guy beats up the extremely muscular skinhead. Only Fudge and Scott have an equally balanced fight.
    • Justified after Remy kills Deja, and Malik loses it.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Malik flees the campus at the end.
  • Screaming Warrior: Omar Epps, dramatically. Busta Rhymes, hilariously.
  • Showdown at High Noon: The fight between the black students and skinheads.
  • Something Completely Different: In this film, we are presented with something not seen in a mainstream American film since The Birth of a Nation 80 years earlier: white-supremacist characters who are actually relatable and semi-sympathetic (though without the blatant hero-worship of D. W. Griffith's film, of course). We get a definite sense of what prompted Remy's Face-Heel Turn and why he would think himself justified in his attitudes and actions. It could even be argued that this film helped to set the stage for American History X three years later, in which the skinhead is actually redeemed.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: When Remy is introduced he is seen hanging up posters of heavy metal bands like Danzig, while political, multi-racial Rage Against the Machine plays in the background. Later after his Face-Heel Turn he's still seen playing their music, despite the fact that half the band is non-white.
  • Split-Screen Phone Call: Billy's conversation with Monet.
  • Straw Feminist: Averted with Taryn, and with Kristen as well (except in the Innocent Bigot example above). Some of their followers, however, do fit the mold-including one who apparently wants to see rapists lynched.
  • Strawman U: Columbus actually doesn't start out as this (being a fairly typical California college campus, even with some Animal House-type mischief), but becomes increasingly so as tensions escalate.
  • Stuffed In A Fridge: Deja’s death is mostly about Malik’s reaction. Once he runs off after Remy, she is never seen again. Professor Phipps later wordlessly confirms her death … in order to once again highlight Malik’s emotions.
  • Suddenly Sexuality: It's actually Kristen who asks Taryn to sleep with her, but Taryn refuses believing that Kristen is merely "curious" and discouraged by men at the moment. It's implied that they do, or at least Kristen really wanted to.
  • Third Line, Some Waiting: Played straight and then subverted. Remy barely appears during the first third of the movie, but then his story gradually starts to take over and becomes paramount.
  • This Is Reality: Dr. Phipps lays this out for Malik during one of his private lectures to him. Then again, in a later scene, he paradoxically hints that "All this is a game!" in a sort of reverse Metaphorgotten.
  • Title Drop: The poet at the festival.
  • Villainous BSOD: Remy right after his shooting spree, culminating in him committing suicide.
  • Wacky Fratboy Hijinx: During rush week.
  • What Might Have Been:
  • White Mask of Doom: The skinheads hide behind grotesque theatrical masks that resemble skulls while assaulting an interracial couple (justified, since it's Halloween).
  • Women Are Wiser: The female characters definitely seem to have their wits together more often than their male counterparts, especially the character of Deja (Tyra Banks).
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Remy
  • You Have to Have Jews: Remy's roommate is a very stereotyped Jew, even played by Adam Goldberg.