Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Singleton|
|Produced by||John Singleton
|Written by||John Singleton|
|Music by||Stanley Clarke|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|Running time||127 minutes|
Higher Learning is a 1995 American drama film, directed by John Singleton, and starring an ensemble cast. The film follows the changing lives of three incoming freshmen at the fictional Columbus University: Malik Williams (Omar Epps), a black track star who struggles with academics; Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson), a shy and naive girl; and Remy (Michael Rapaport), a lonely and confused man seemingly out of place in his new environment.
The film also featured Tyra Banks' first performance in a theatrical film. Laurence Fishburne won an NAACP Image Award for "Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture"; Ice Cube was also nominated for the award. This was the last film appearance of Dedrick D. Gobert, who was shot dead in 1994 prior to the film's release. Gwyneth Paltrow appears briefly in the film as a student, the only time in her film career to date she has had an uncredited role.
We meet Malik Williams (a black man), Kristen Connor (a white woman), and Remy, (a white man), at the opening freshman pep rally. Malik and Kristen cross paths in the elevator and she shields her purse while Malik, both offended and amused, simply ignores her. There is a montage of each student putting up pictures and posters in their rooms. Track star Malik goes to his first practice unprepared, and is surprised to be chastised by the black coach.
Kristen meets her black roommate, Monet (Regina King) before attending a fraternity rush party with her white girlfriends later that evening. Monet attends a party with other black students, including Mailk, hosted by an afrocentric senior (Ice Cube) nicknamed Fudge. Remy, Fudge's roommate, is upset at the loud rap music being played late into the night. He calls campus police, who breaks up the party. Fudge asks the police why they aren't telling the white students down the hall to stop their loud "hillbilly music". Kristen, while walking home, meets Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), a junior and a lesbian, who warns Kristen about walking alone late at night and invites her to a student group. Malik's roommate, Wayne, is then introduced, with Malik complaining about his filthy side of the room.
The next day, Fudge points out the self-segregation of the various ethnic groups on campus. In Malik's first class, Professor Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne) calls out Malik and Kristen and several others for tuition problems. They go to the financial aid office, where Kristen is told she needs a job and Malik learns that his scholarship is partial, not full. He talks to the coach, who agrees to help him out if he keeps his grades up and works extra hard on the field.
Fudge returns to his room with his friend Dreads (Busta Rhymes) and blares his music, disrupting Remy's studying. When Remy complains, Fudge mocks him, causing the disengaged Remy to move out. Later, Remy plays a video game with Malik and loses, then rejects an offer of pool from Wayne and David Isaacs, Remy's new Jewish roommate. Kristen and her friends drink at a party with a student named Billy and Kristen retreats back to his frat room with him. Billy and Kristen make out, but when Billy indicates that he does not have a condom, Kristen refuses. Despite her pleas, Billy ignores her and rapes her. She eventually fights him off and flees, with Billy giving chase to make amends.
Monet returns to the room and finds Kristen crying in her bed. When Billy calls, Monet refuses to let him talk to her and Billy calls her a "black bitch". Angered, she turns to Fudge, who recruits a group of black students to confront Billy at the frat house. Fudge and Dreads retrieve Billy, drag him outside and threaten him into apologizing to Monet. Security arrives and target the black students, asking them to leave while the white students are not recognized as a security problem. Kristen begins attending Taryn's student group on harmony between different student groups.
Malik visits with Fudge and asks to use a copy of the autobiography of Frederick Douglass for a project. Fudge tells him to read it for himself and puts him out, decidedly taking a big brother role over the freshman. That evening, Remy is reading alone outside when he is approached by a stranger named Scott Moss. Scott and his skinhead friends – Erik, James and Knocko soon reveal themselves to be white supremacists.
Professor Phipps challenges his class to determine who they are for themselves and not let others categorize them. Kristen responds personally by telling Taryn about being raped and Taryn consoles her, encouraging her to report it. Malik confronts Phipps about his badly graded paper, arguing he should have a better grade. When Phipps shows him the various spelling and grammar errors, Malik calls him a sellout. Phipps retorts that the world owes him nothing and he must work for his own good. Malik runs in a racing relay, losing ground to another runner. When his teammates confront him, he responds by downplaying his role. Sometime later he flirts with fellow runner Deja (Tyra Banks).
Remy and his new friends gather in Scott's room. The walls are decorated with Swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia, intimating that the skinheads are indeed Neo-Nazis. Scott expresses his racist beliefs and Remy is slowly convinced of his ideals. Deja helps Malik with his essay while Kristen realizes her attraction to Taryn.
Phipps then criticizes Kristen's bland paper, telling her that only writing the facts is fine for journalism, not for political science. He explains that her purpose at college is to think for herself. Phipps also meets with Malik about his much improved paper. Remy is shown working away in class, surrounded by students of other races. He removes his hat, showing he now has a shaved his head and is wearing an Iron Cross necklace.
Wayne asks Kristen for a flier for their group, confronting her when she says the anti-sexism group is for women. On Halloween, Monet attends a party with Dreads while Kristen attends a rape awareness rally with Taryn and the Neo-Nazis attack an interracial couple while Remy watches on. Kristen asks to spend the night with Taryn. Taryn rebuffs her, saying she wants Kristen to be sure about it. While stretching on the track, Malik touts his newfound black ideology to Deja. Deja rebuffs this, saying he has opportunities that people would do anything for and he should take them. A montage shows the two training and falling in love while Kristen begins dating Wayne.
Scott shows Remy his gun collection and Remy talks about his abusive, survivalist father. Kristen forms a bond with Taryn, holding hands and taking walks together. A montage love sequence is shown with Kristen where she sleeps with both Wayne and Taryn, finding solace with both. Remy approaches Malik and Deja, condemning Malik's Black Panther shirt and calls him a racial slur. Malik, angered, goes to Remy's room to confront him. Remy backs down from a fistfight from the larger, stronger Malik who insults him back and leaves. Remy flies into a rage, trashes the room and preps his hidden Glock 9mm. After David returns, he confronts Remy about the mess and Remy reacts, attacking him until Malik intervenes. Remy draws his weapon, threatening the duo and retreats. Malik runs after him, only to be stopped by security guards asking for ID. Resisting, he is arrested as David protests and Remy is allowed to escape.
Malik subsequently moves in with Fudge, feeling safe around the other black students and parts ways with a curious Wayne. One day, Malik, Fudge, and Phipps converse on race, knowledge of self and the system of life. Phipps says that he must play a game of life to win, because society wants no excuses. Kristen and Taryn organize a peace festival to calm and unify the campus after Remy's actions.
Meanwhile, Scott chastises Remy for dropping out of school, arguing that they (skinheads) need more successful members and that he is betraying his race. While having lunch, Knocko calls out a racial slur just as Fudge, Malik, Dreads and another black student confront them the Neo-Nazis and a group fight ensues. Afterwards, Deja confronts Malik on his intentions of dropping out and fighting like a thug. Malik is becoming more and more angry about racial issues. Scott says that Remy's posturing means nothing and only actions do. He then shows Remy a sniper rifle and challenges him into action.
Malik and Deja are at the Peace Fest and Malik opts not to drop out because he'd lose her. Remy has moved to the rooftop of a building with the sniper rifle and prepares to strike. Erik stands lookout while the Neo-Nazis attack a gay couple to distract security. Remy is obviously having trouble with the plan, but acquiesces when pushed by Scott. He opens fire on the crowd below, causing a panic, shooting several students and striking a fleeing Deja in the stomach. She collapses and Malik pulls her to safety at the base of a statue of Christopher Columbus. Phipps arrives and urges Malik to call for help, but Malik looks at the blood on his hands and Deja dying in front of him, and runs to find justice. He finds Remy in a stairwell and attacks him, while Remy shouts white power insults onto Malik, but is nearly choked to death before the security guards arrive. The white security forces intervene by pulling Malik away by beating him with clubs and asking Remy if he is okay, letting him go. As Remy runs down the stairs, security apprehends Malik. Security confronts a fleeing Remy as he tries to escape and he draws his pistol. Remy apologizes to Malik and shoots himself in the mouth, committing suicide. Malik returns and finds that Deja has died and he collapses into Phipps' arms, filled with uncontrollable emotions.
The Neo-Nazis are shown mourning Remy's death when they see a TV news report of the university shooting. Erik simply replies that "That wasn't Remy...that was white power." Knocko, Erik, and James then begin celebrating, chanting, "white power" and "sieg heil" forgetting all about Remy. Scott quietly sits back and for a brief moment seems to smile.
Malik and Phipps discuss a future away from the university, with Phipps saying he trusts Malik's judgment. Later, Malik and Kristen meet at the memorial. Kristen feels guilty about the deaths because she started the festival but Malik assuages her. They shake hands and part. The final montage shows Malik running, Fudge (and the senior class) graduating as the band plays the national anthem and Phipps leaving. He exits the frame under the American flag and the word UNLEARN are superimposed over the screen.
- Omar Epps as Malik Williams
- Kristy Swanson as Kristen Connor
- Michael Rapaport as Remy
- Ice Cube as Fudge
- Jennifer Connelly as Taryn
- Tyra Banks as Deja
- Regina King as Monet
- Jason Wiles as Wayne
- Cole Hauser as Scott Moss
- Busta Rhymes as Dreads
- Laurence Fishburne as Professor Maurice Phipps
- Bradford English as Officer Bradley
- Jay R. Ferguson as Billy
- Andrew Bryniarski as Knocko
- Trevor St. John as James
- Talbert Morton as Erik
- Adam Goldberg as David Isaacs
- J. Trevor Edmond as Eddie
- Bridgette Wilson as Nicole
- Kari Wührer as Claudi
- Colleen Fitzpatrick as Festival Singer
- Morris Chestnut as Track Anchor (Uncredited)
- Gwyneth Paltrow as Student (Uncredited)
Laurence Fishburne won an Image Award, and Ice Cube was nominated for Image Award in 1996.
Critical response 
The film received positive to mixed reviews. Roger Ebert commented about John Singleton's direction of the film: "He sees with a clear eye and a strong will, and is not persuaded by fashionable ideologies. His movies are thought-provoking because he uses familiar kinds of characters and then asks hard questions about them." He awarded the film 3 out of 4 stars. TimeOut Magazine described it as "a stylish, intelligent film-maker, Singleton interweaves the threads of his demographic tapestry with assurance, passion and a welcome awareness of the complexities of the college community's contradictory impulses towards integration and separatism."
Reel Film Reviews wrote, "...Higher Learning is consistently entertaining and well-acted all around. While it's not a perfect movie – Cube's character disappears for a 30-minute stretch and Singleton's approach often veers into heavy-handedness – it is nevertheless an intriguing look at the differences between races and how such differences can clash." (3.5 stars out of 4)
The soundtrack, containing hip hop, R&B, rock and jazz music was released on January 3, 1995 by Epic Records. It peaked at #39 on the Billboard 200 and #9 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. In addition to "Higher", performed by Ice Cube, the soundtrack includes original music by OutKast, Liz Phair, Tori Amos and Rage Against the Machine.
- "Violence Erupts in Opening Week of 'Higher Learning'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-06-03.
- Roger Ebert (January 11, 1995). "Higher Learning". RogerEbert.com (Chicago Sun-Times).
- "The Films of John Singleton. Higher Learning.". Reel Film. Archived from the original on 2007-10-13.
- Higher Learning at the Internet Movie Database
- Higher Learning at AllMovie
- Higher Learning at Rotten Tomatoes