Revisiting Racism on Campus in John Singleton's ‘Higher Learning’

Recently in The North Star, Hasan Kwame Jeffries reflected on the loss of Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton, who passed away from a stroke on April 28 at the young age of 51. Jeffries lauded Singleton’s unflinching portrayals of American violence, writing, “Singleton set out to provide an honest look at what was happening to and in African American communities in order to make America see what it had turned a blind eye toward, and also to make America care.”

Singleton’s 1995 college film Higher Learning is another example of his radical honesty and burning desire to make America confront its violent past and present by exploring the campus as a site where many of the country’s problems, including racism, sexism, and violence, are reproduced.

In my forthcoming book, The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual, I explore fictional portrayals of academia in novels and films, with an emphasis on works that center Black students and professors. Higher Learning was one of the first examples of this genre that I encountered long before the research topic came to fruition.

Higher Learning exposes the dirty laundry of the predominantly white institution (PWI) in a similar way that Spike Lee does for the historically Black college and university (HBCU) in his 1988 film School Daze.

In Higher Learning, Singleton recasts the campus film by paying attention to the presence of Black students and professors and emphasizing the uncomfortable history of racism in American higher education. Higher Learning belongs in conversation with other works about the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, including the college comedy film PCU (1994), Ishmael Reed’s satirical novel Japanese by Spring (1993), and Philip Roth’s Bill Clinton-era commentary on “political correctness,” The Human Stain (2000).

Rather than portray the bucolic campus as a cloistered retreat from the world, Singleton positions the campus as a potential site of violence and conflict, symbolized by the prominently featured statue of Christopher Columbus.

Higher Learning follows Malik Williams (Omar Epps) and Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson), two freshmen at Columbus University. The film explores the consequences of the academy’s denial of its history, and its refusal to see itself as the bastion of white supremacist thought and memorialization. These conversations were already in play in the 1990s with debates over multiculturalism, Western civilization, and the canon of Great Books. Recently, student protesters have worked to remove racist symbols on their campuses, including the Silent Sam statue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and against (Nathan Bedford) Forrest Hall at Middle Tennessee State University. This activism also occurs internationally, including at South Africa’s University of Cape Town with its “Rhodes Must Fall” protests.

In reality, Columbus University, like many American universities after the 1950s, has somewhat diversified with clusters of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students. In Higher Learning, it’s campus super-senior Fudge (played with militant aplomb by Ice Cube) who schools Malik on the different racial factions on campus and explains that he’s being exploited for his athletic talents as a track star.

Through Kristen’s parallel story, Higher Learning delves into the sensitive subject of date rape. A scene of her assault in a dorm room, where a consensual encounter with a white male student turns non-consensual, anticipates the #MeToo movement and how that movement calls attention to abusive men who exploit the gray areas of social and professional contact. While Kristen’s newfound feminism after the assault could be read as an empowering story about gender and resistance, the portrayal of her lesbian relationship with a fellow student (Jennifer Connelly) feels exploitative, even as it does attempt to address post-Stonewall queer activism on campus.

Conservative political science professor Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne) is a recognizable caricature of the pompous academic, complete with tweed jacket, bowtie, sweater vest, gold-rimmed glasses, and smoking pipe. Phipps lectures Malik about work ethic and not making excuses, saying “It is laziness, Mr. Williams, that has kept Black people down in this country.” The fact that Phipps is West Indian is not a minor detail, and Singleton corroborated the significance of this point in a 1995 interview with Roger Ebert. Although there is a strong tradition of Caribbean radicalism and solidarity with Black Americans, there have also been moments of conflict. In her 2013 academic novel Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly explores the occasionally contentious relationship between “American Blacks” and “non-American Blacks.” Singleton pays thoughtful attention to these distinctions of Blackness in the film, including scenes where Black students discuss differences in class, gender, nationality, and political strategy.

Maybe the most relevant development in Higher Learning is the radicalization of Remy (Michael Rapaport), a white kid from Idaho who first falls in with a group of neo-Nazis while sitting beneath the Columbus statue. The scene reminds me of stories about young white men radicalized by online white supremacist groups, as well as images from Charlottesville, Virginia on the night of August 11, 2017, when tiki torch-bearing fascists rallied around the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia’s campus. The Remy storyline was likely inspired by high-profile incidents of white supremacist violence in the 1990s, including the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff, and would reach its height four months later with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

When Remy later pulls a gun on Malik, the cops search Remy’s dorm room and find Nazi paraphernalia, but don’t take him seriously as a threat. Their willful negligence leads to an all-too-familiar scene of a mass shooting. Like Charles Whitman in the bell tower at the University of Texas in 1966, Remy stands with a shotgun on the top of a building overlooking the quad and picks off the students who had gathered at a unity rally, including the Black female track star Deja (played by Tyra Banks).

How many post-shooting vigils have we seen like the one at the end of Higher Learning? How many makeshift memorials exist like the one that the students assemble at the base of the Columbus statue and what difference have any of them made? In a nation founded on slavery and genocide — one that has not truly reckoned with its history and stubbornly refuses to see its love of guns and white supremacy as existential problems — can there be any justice or reprieve from this scourge of violence? These are the kind of tough questions that Singleton leaves us to ponder as Higher Learning ends with the college marching band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the word “unlearn” appears superimposed over the American flag. Revisiting this film in the context of a Donald Trump presidency, Higher Learning proves to be a prescient work of art that explores topics dominating American college campuses nearly 25 years later. It is the kind of courageous and challenging art that forces us to pay attention and search for answers to these most difficult questions.

About the Author

Lavelle Porter is an assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology, CUNY. He holds a BA in history from Morehouse College, and a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is a blogger for Black Perspectives, and the author of The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual.