13 July 2003 | bob the moo
A muddled mix of stereotypes and paper thin characters in a filmthat mistakenly thinks it is deep and insightful
Columbus University is one of the finest in America. Into this place of higher learning comes a mix of students to join the already multicultural pot. Malik is a black track star who feels he is disadvantaged as he has to run and study, while others only have to run. Remy is a white teenager who is forced out of his dorm by his black roommate and finds friendship in an extreme group. Kristen is a young female who struggles to make friends and is assaulted by a man before falling in with a women's group. Their experiences intertwine in the small campus.
If anyone wonders why director John Singleton (he of Boyz n' the Hood) is now making things like 2Fast2Furious, this is as good a place to start looking as anywhere. After an assured start with Boyz, the director made a couple of films that had potential but just came out muddled or lacking something to make them work. Poetic Justice was one of them and this was another. Higher Learning had potential and you can see that it's heart is in the right place but it doesn't come off at all. The plot tries to be a mix of experiences but, because there are three or so characters up front, there is no time to develop them so their experiences are broad cultural brush strokes - the white kid sucked into extremism, the raped girl taken into lesbianism, the black man who has to work harder for everything.
As a result the plot never really engages and it all just goes where you expect it to go - and is less impacting as a result of it's plodding nature. This spills over into the characters too - they are all pretty much stereotypes that fit into their scenario rather than real characters. Singleton shows is bias in his direction and character selection. My wife said something about me watching a lot of `black' films in the past week and I said Higher Learning was not dominated by any one race - but I think I was wrong. Singleton clearly likes the characters played by Busta Rhymes, Ice Cube and Epps - they are cool and put upon where other characters (races) have fewer kind touches placed on them. Personally I thought every character had huge chips on their shoulders about their identity - but the African American characters are the only ones that are held up for praise in relation to their chips!
Having said that I did think Epps did OK - he made a lifeless character a little more interesting. Banks however is as one dimensional as I have grown to expect from her. Rapaport looks very young indeed but he does well. His character is lazily drawn and developed, but he manages to make him a little human - which took work looking at the film as a finished product. Swanson is too dippy and light - but then all the lesbian characters seem to be painted in a weird sort of light. Ice Cube and Busta Rhymes give extended cameos which require them to deliver their rap personas of thugz - they are laughably clichéd! Fishburne adds gravitas as he always does, but he has little to do and is given not only a poor accent, but also some `deep' dialogue that just sounds pretentious or like a fortune cookie.
Overall I saw what this film was trying to do but it didn't manage it. It was ambitious, but the wide spread meant that none of the plots or characters were allowed to develop and instead were left as hollow, broad stereotypes and scenarios. The film tries to go all deep and the final shot of the word `unlearn' against an American flag just feels like Singleton must have thought that he had been making incredibly profound points the whole time - instead it felt that his original idea had had a deeper point, but it was totally lost in delivery.