Higher Learning (1995) is the third film from Academy Award-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.
This film contains examples of:
- An Aesop: Plenty, and they're not exactly subtle about it.
- Ignoring racial tensions causes unaddressed resentments, which will inevitably boil over into violence if left unchecked. The fact that the film came out shortly after the LA Race Riots and just before the OJ Simpson murder trial is not irrelevant.
- There's no such thing as harmless racism. At best, it will cause microaggressions that will fuel a backlash. At worst, it will snowball into more extreme forms of overt bigotry.
- Systemic disadvantages should not be used as an excuse not to strive for improvement. Really hammered home by one of Phipps' lectures to Malik.Phipps: Let's say you are running a race and you suspect the opposing team has a member who is faster, stronger, more big time than yourself. What do you do then? Leave the track?
Malik: Hell no!
Phipps: What do you do?
Malik: ...Run faster.
- Affably Evil: Scott and his gang are dangerous and ominous looking criminals. They also are the only people who treat Remy remotely well. Ironically, this leads to Remy becoming much worse than them.
- Ambiguously Bi: 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 subtext to the scene in which Dr. Phipps is discussing his students' various backgrounds.Dr. Phipps: [to Kristen] What are you?
Kristen: I don't know...
- Anger Montage: Remy trashes his dorm room after Malik calls him names.
- Asshole Victim: Billy (the frat boy rapist) gets beaten up for the wrong reason, but he still arguably had it coming.
- Author Avatar: Singleton has called Malik "his voice" in the film, saying that many of his screeds are emblematic of Singleton's own frustrations with the systemic racism in his own line of work.
- Bald of Evil: The neo-Nazi skinheads, of course.
- Bisexual Love Triangle: Kristen eventually starts separate relationships with Wayne and Taryn who are unaware that Kristen is sleeping with both of them (assuming the latter was real, not just a fantasy anyway).
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Scott the Neo-Nazi is really good at hiding his ideology behind friendly gestures. His Establishing Character Moment is using a Nazi slogan to invite Remy for a drink.
- 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 at the peace 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.)
- Brilliant, but Lazy: Fudge, described by Monet as a "super-duper senior," meaning he's been pursuing an undergraduate degree for at least 6 years. He's obviously very well-read and is doing well enough in school that he's allowed to remain, but he apparently has no interest in doing anything other than being a college student.
- 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 everyone.
- Cluster F-Bomb: When Remy finally snaps and pulls a gun on both Malik and a Jewish student.
- Cool Teacher: Professor Phipps. He takes an interest in his students outside the classroom and tries his best to act as a mentor figure to Malik.
- 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.
- Driven to Suicide: Remy's Villainous Breakdown ends with him killing himself.
- 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.
- Economy Cast: Professor Phipps is the only teacher we ever see. He's the only faculty of any kind we see, in fact.
- Everything Is Racist: Both Malik and Remy come to view the world through this lens.
- Freudian Excuse: Remy was raised in an abusive household by a Crazy Survivalist father. He's both extremely sheltered and extremely bad with people, which makes him an easy target for manipulation, especially when isolated.
- 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.
- Holding Hands: Kristen starts holding hands with Taryn as they grow closer. It's a sign too of Kristen's attraction for her.
- Homophobic Hate Crime: The Neo-Nazis beat up a couple queer guys on campus (or at least, they assume they're this) near the end of the film.
- 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.
- Ironic Name: Fudge's last name is White, it turns out, to Malik's incredulity.
- 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 calling Monet a "black bitch", 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.
- Leg Focus: The camera slowly pans over Deja's long athletic legs while in her running gear. It turns into showing them while she and Malik have sex too, with her legs wrapped around him.
- Lipstick Lesbian: Taryn is a feminine lesbian, with long hair and conventional clothing, although she's also not extremely so. Kristen is at least possibly bisexual and interested in Taryn, with a similar look.
- Malcolm Xerox: Fudge. He's the driving force behind the militant Afrocentrism that eventually casts Malik in his mold. Malik gradually becomes this as well, and picks up on Fudge's bad habit of using this philosophy as an excuse for his personal shortcomings.
- Maligned Mixed Marriage: The Neo-Nazis beat up a black guy for dating a white girl on campus, warning her to not do this again.
- 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 suicide didn’t seem to be part of the original plan.
- 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 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, since they only care when it's a white guy.
- Profiling: Fudge and his group complain repeatedly of racism toward them from the campus police (who also appear to have just one black member), which is born out by the film since the officers always assume that it's them who caused any issue or ignore white students doing the same thing.
- Rape and Switch: After being raped by Billy, Kristen develops a close relationship with Taryn and REALLY wants to sleep with her. Played with, in that Taryn herself is skeptical, and initially chalks it up to Kristen's disillusionment with men at the moment. Indeed, she starts dating (and has sex with) a guy around the same time, although she's fantasizing about Taryn for most of it.
- Rape as Drama: Kristen hooks up with Billy, which unfortunately turns into rape when he starts doing it without putting on a condom as she insisted. She's traumatized by this, and gets involved with feminist activism afterward.
- Rule of Symbolism: Columbus University is a metaphor for America—just in case that wasn't obvious enough. The film ends (for no reason) with a marching band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a shot of Prof. Phipps walking under an American flag, just in case that was a little too subtle for you.
- 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.
- Scholarship Student: Malik, which is the source of a lot of insecurity for him. Not only is he on partial scholarship, but his ability to remain in school is dependent on his success on the track.
- Screaming Warrior: On the dramatic side, Omar Epps. On the hilarious side, Busta Rhymez (as he was known as at the time).
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Malik flees the campus at the end.
- Showdown at High Noon: The fight between the black students and skinheads.
- 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 and their politics are on the opposite end of his now.
- Split-Screen Phone Call: Billy's conversation with Monet.
- Statuesque Stunner: Malik begins to date Deja, a beautiful young woman who's quite tall (more than any other female student seen). Fittingly, she runs track like him. The camera focuses on her long legs for a continuous shot at one point.
- Straw Feminist: Averted with Taryn, and 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.
- Supporting Protagonist: Malik and Remy switch off, with Malik's story being the focus of the first half and Remy's being the focus of the second half and the climax.
- 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 delivers a poem that includes the rhetorical question, "What is higher learning?"
- Toplessness from the Back: Kristen is shown this way as she's making out with Taryn (or fantasizing about it at least).
- Troubled Sympathetic Bigot: Deconstructed. Kristen's rape and Malik and Remy's bad experiences are ostensibly sympathetic origins for their prejudices, but they're unambiguously portrayed as in the wrong regardless, and only make their situations worse because of it. Malik and Kristen ultimately learn from their mistakes, but it costs them both dearly. Remy...doesn't, and it costs him even more.
- Villainous Breakdown: Remy right after his shooting spree, culminating in his suicide.
- Wacky Fratboy Hijinx: During rush week. This is played rather seriously, as one of said hijinks is raping Kristen. Additionally, Remy's failed attempts to participate end up being his Start of Darkness.
- White Mask of Doom: The skinheads hide behind grotesque theatrical masks that resemble skulls while assaulting an interracial couple Granted, it's Halloween, but the choice of mask was probably not coincidental.
- 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's awkwardness and insecurity makes him a huge target for bullying and ostracism. He responds by becoming increasingly alienated from and aggressive towards the people around him, until he makes friends with some Neo-Nazis who decide to channel his resentment into a race war. It works a little too well.