All Talk, No Walk

Higher Learning (John Singleton, 1996)

It’s appropriate to consider John Singleton as a level-headed Spike Lee, although that claim would also bring about the case against Singleton that he has no backbone or conviction. What Singleton does best, is juxtaposition and banner-waving. Much of Singleton’s narratives rely heavily on the use of street signs and campaign posters and notices. In Boyz ‘N Tha Hood, Singleton’s masterpiece, the first shot you see is the camera coming to a crashing halt at a stop sign… the next, a group of black children staring at a Ronald Reagan poster with bullet-holes in it. These sequences are of utmost importance to a Singleton films because they depict very viciously, what effect imagery and authority have on people. You follow a street sign or a stop light because it is a stand-in for the law. When you see a political campaign poster you automatically recognize it as a representation of an individual vision of the nation. Images are the most powerful influences in our society because the way something is represented is what we automatically take to be true. There is no place more volatile in its influence over a population than a college campus, which is the center of this Singleton film… so it’s confounding why Singleton abandoned his craft of stark imagery for a film consisting of cliché, motivational blabbering.

In Higher Learning, imagery is there… (a ‘police emergency’ sign on a phone booth for women who are attacked or raped, Nazi Swastikas in dorm rooms, a T-shirt donning Black Panther Pride, Greek Letters on a fraternity house, The school’s mascot) but the most powerful image or ‘banner’ in question is the American flag. We see it when the skinheads go to recruit new members, when students stand cheering at a football game, when professor Phipps walks out of the hall, and when a lone student sits on the steps reading “Mein Kampf”. These juxtapositions represent Singleton’s view of America, a country, possibly the only country, that is built on the freedom of ideology, race, sexuality and gender. The diversity of the nation is essentially what Singleton argues makes this country “American”. Of course, this can be a good thing, but can pose glaring issues as well.

Unfortunately, Singleton’s narrative goes the high-road to tackle virtually every single pressing issue you can think comes up in a political debate… race wars, homosexuality, political corruption, financial aid, police brutality, sociopathy, abstinence/contraception, feminism and rape, and tries to check each off like items on a grocery list, through the use of ‘cinematic dialogue’ (which is the most generic, lazy way to get things across in a movie). The undoing of Higher Learning is that it embarks on a mission to comment on each and every single one of these facets of American college life and ends up missing on most of them. If a waiter carries too many plates in his hands, they will all fall down. Each scene in the film features preaching so corny, you would think Singleton took bits and pieces of speeches from public speakers and jammed them into his script. Words in Higher Learning only manage to water down the effect the film would have had if he would have placed the symbolism over the wordage. In the end however, the films only works on the level that is hints at many different issues without ever getting to the crux of any of the problems, and wraps itself up in a lazy, almost insulting way by culminating these problems into a single act of ultimate violence (humans killing one another… chaos). For a filmmaker who made a movie as brilliant as Boyz ‘N Tha Hood, should know that a college campus is not the same as Compton, and the rules of the game can be adhered to or at least questioned in a much more appropriate manner.

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