Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Singleton|
|Produced by||John Singleton
|Written by||John Singleton|
|Music by||Stanley Clarke|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
Higher Learning is a 1995 American romantic 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.
At Columbus University, a fictitious college in southern California, we first see Malik Williams (Omar Epps), a black man, Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson), a white woman, and Remy (Michael Rapaport), another white man, at the opening freshman pep rally and as they are decorating their rooms. Malik and Kristen meet in the elevator, with the nervous Kristen shielding her purse and Malik seeing this and resenting it. There is a montage of each putting up pictures and posters in their rooms. Track star Malik goes to his first practice unprepared, and is chastised severely by the coach.
Kristen meets her roommate, Monet (Regina King), a black girl, and attends a fraternity rush party, where she meets two outgoing freshmen Nicole and Claudi. Monet and Malik attend a party with other black students, hosted by Fudge (Ice Cube), an afrocentric and militant senior whom has been at the university for six years now. Remy, who is Fudge's roommate, is upset at the loud rap music being played late into the night. He calls security, who breaks up the party. Fudge is upset that they don't tell the room down the hall to stop their loud "hillbilly" music. Kristen, while walking home, meets Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), a junior lesbian student who warns Kristen about walking alone late at night and invites her to a student group. Malik's roommate, Wayne (Jason Wiles), is then introduced, with Malik angry about his filthy bed area and lack of hygine.
The next day at the campus square, Fudge points out to Monet the self-segregation of the various ethnic groups on campus. We then see Malik's first class, with Professor Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne), a conservative black man from the West Indies whom is teaching Political Science 101. In the class, Malik's and Kristen's names (among others) are called out for having financial problems, embarrassing them. They go to the financial aid office, where Kristen is told she needs a job since her parents are bankrupt, and Malik learns that his athletic 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 plays his rap music loud, disrupting Remy's studying. When Remy complains, Fudge mocks and threatens him, causing Remy to move out. Later, Remy is beaten by Malik at a video game who further mocks him. Remey then rejects an offer of pool from Wayne and David Isaacs, Remy's new Jewish roommate.
Meanwhile, Kristen is shown getting drunk and leaving with frat boy Billy (Jay Ferguson), retreating back to his frat room. Billy and Kristen prepare to have sex, but when Billy indicates that he does not have a condom, Kristen decides she doesn't want to have sex. Despite this, Billy ignores her refusal, and rapes her. She eventually fights him off, and flees.
Monet returns to their room and finds Kristen crying in her bed. When Billy calls, Monet refuses give the phone to Kristen, and Billy suddenly reacts violently and insults her racially. Angered, she turns to Fudge, who recruits his friends to confront him at the frat party. Monet forces Kristen to tag along with them where she willingly points out Billy to the black students. Fudge and Dreads pull Billy outside, threatening him and forcing him to apologize to Monet. The security guards arrive and the black students leave.
The next day, despite being ostracized by her friends, Kristen attends Taryn's student group on harmony between different groups.
Meanwhile, Malik borrows a copy of the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. After telling Fudge he only needs it for a class, Fudge kicks him out, telling him to read it for himself and not for school.
That evening, Remy is reading alone outside in the student quad when he is approached and asked out for a drink by Scott Moss (Cole Hauser), a white supremacist and neo-Nazi skinhead whom had been glimpsed in the background shadowing Remy for the past few days. Remy also meets Scott's skinhead friends: Erik (Talbert Morton), James (Trevor St. John), and the weight-lifting hulking Knocko (Andrew Bryniarski).
A few days later, Professor Phipps challenges his class (including Kristen and Malik) to determine who they are for themselves and not let others categorize them.
Kristen talks about her rape with Taryn, with Taryn encouraging her to report it and attempting to console her.
Malik confronts Phipps about a paper he graded, arguing he should have a better grade. When Phipps shows him the various spelling and grammar errors, Malik calls him a sellout for the "white establishment". Phipps angrily responds that the world owes Malik nothing and he must work for his own good to make a difference in this world.
Malik is then shown racing in a relay, losing ground to another runner. When his teammates confront him, he responds with Fudge's ideology. He walks away and flirts with fellow runner Deja (Tyra Banks).
Remy is seen in Scott's dorm room with James, Erik, and Knocko. The room is decorated with Swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia. Scott expresses his racist beliefs, and the troubled Remy is slowly being convinced that "the white man is endangered" and he is encouraged to shave his head to join Scott's underground neo-Nazi group.
In the campus library, Deja is shown helping Malik with his essay and his spelling errors. Nearby, Kristen is shown realizing her growing attraction to Taryn.
Phipps then criticizes Kristen's bland paper, telling her that only writing the facts is fine for journalism, but not for a political science course. Phipps tells her that her purpose at college is to think for herself. Phipps then talks with Malik about his much improved paper.
Remy is shown working in a class, surrounded by students of other races. He removes his hat, showing he has 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, flirting with her as well.
On Halloween night, Monet attends a costume party with Dreads while Malik also attends with Deja. Kristen attends a rape awareness rally with Taryn. Remy and the other neo-Nazis attack an interracial couple. After the rally, 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 continues spouting Fudge's ideology to Deja, saying he hates feeling like a thoroughbred. Deja rebuffs him, saying he has opportunities that people would do anything for and he should take them. The stretching and running is then intercut in a montage with a love scene, showing they have started dating. Kristen is also seen going on a date with Wayne.
Scott shows Remy his gun collection and Remy talks about his abusive, survivalist father in his Idaho home town (which is the indirect result of Remy's troubled behavior and childhood).
Kristen is shown walking holding hands with Taryn in public across the campus. They have a run-in with Monet and another friend of hers who see them. A montage love sequence is shown with Kristen where she sleeps with Wayne, but fantasizes about Taryn. (In a deleted scene, Kristen goes to Taryn's room and indeed has sex with her as well).
One day, while Malik and Deja talk about Christopher Columbus and of the college, Remy approaches, condemning Malik's Black Panther shirt and calling him a racial slur. Malik, angered, goes to Remy's room and confronts him about being a racist and Nazi after finding him reading a copy of Adolph Hitler's book 'Mein Kampf' (My Struggle). Remy backs down from a fistfight, with Malik insulting him and leaving. Remy trashes the room, contemplating suicide. After David returns, he confronts Remy about the mess. Remy starts beating David and Malik intervenes. Remy pulls his Glock 9mm, threatening the two and leaving. Malik runs after him, only to be stopped by security guards asking for ID. Resisting, he is arrested, letting Remy escape. Malik then moves in with Fudge and the rest of his friends.
A day or two later, Malik and Fudge are relaxing on the student quad when they have a run-in with Professor Phipps and the three of them have a discussion on race, knowledge, and "the system". Phipps tells Malik that he must play the game of life to win, because no one wants to hear excuses. It is here that Fudge used to attend Phipps class when he was a freshman years ago and Malik is somewhat surprised when Phipps addresses Fudge by his real name, which happens to be 'Christopher White'. At the same time, Kristen begins organizing a peace festival with Monet to calm down the students after Remy's actions.
Meanwhile, Scott chastises Remy for dropping out of school, arguing that the white community needs more successful members and that he is betraying his race. After Knocko calls out a racial slur, Fudge, Malik, Dreads, and another black student start a gang fight with the white power skinheads, beating them. Later, Deja confronts Malik on his intentions of dropping out and fighting for no good reason. Malik is becoming more and more angry about racial issues. At the underground skinheads's doorm, Scott says that Remy's posturing means nothing, and only actions do. He then shows Remy a sniper rifle and challenges him to action. The alienated and warped Remy agrees to kill for the white race.
We then see Malik and Deja walking at the Peace Fest, with Malik saying he wouldn't drop out of college because he'd lose her. Kristen stands on the podum of the rally where she addresses the students while she sees both Wayne and Taryn standing separate among the students, leaving Kristen feeling uneasy to both of them whom she is dating without the others knowledge. Remy has moved to the rooftop of a nearby building with the sniper rifle and prepares to open fire on the students. Erik stands lookout while the other racist skinheads attack a gay couple to distract security. Remy is obviously having trouble with doing this, but acquiesces when pushed by Scott who tells him to "do it for the Aryan Nation". He opens fire on the Peace Fest, causing a riot. An unnamed student is killed, and Deja is shot in the stomach. She collapses in Malik's arms. After Phipps tries to help, Malik goes crazy and attacks Remy, meeting him on the stairs of the building and beating him severely and nearly choking him to death before racist security guards, led by the racist Officer Bradley (Bradford English) intervenes and beats him. Bradley and his men confront Remy as he tries to leave. Remy pulls out a pistol, resulting in a stand-off. Remy apologizes to the police for everything that he did and shoots himself in the head, killing himself. After the security guards let Malik go, he returns outside and finds that Deja has died, and he collapses into Phipps' arms, crying and wailing.
The racist skinheads are shown mourning Remy's death when they see a TV news report of the university shooting. Knocko, Erik, and James then begin celebrating his actions, chanting, "white power". Scott quietly sits back and for a brief moment seems to smile.
(It is strongly implied that Scott and his skinheads intentionally approached, brainwashed, and set Remy up as the patsy for their own actions, taking advantage of the troubled youth to make him do their murderous deeds and they will get away with it since there is nothing to connect Remy to either Scott or his skinheads.)
A few days later, Malik and Phipps discuss his future away from the university, with Phipps saying he trusts Malik's judgment whatever it will be. Malik walks out of the office, making it unclear if he is going to drop out of the university or stay on. Afterwords, Malik and Kristen are seen meeting for the first time at a memorial to Deja. Kristen feels guilty about the deaths because she started the festival. Malik assuages her guilt. And shortly after, they part. Malik goes to the campus track and runs around the racetrack alone... running for himself and not for the school.
In the final scene, a graduation ceremony is held where Fudge is seen finally graduating with the other students having long ago acquired all of the credits he needs, but refusing to wear a cap or smile for his graduation photo. As Professor Phipps leaves his office, the final shot shows the USA flag fluttering in the wind as the caption "unlearn" appears over it as the image fades to black
- Omar Epps as Malik Williams, a track star who struggles with academics
- Kristy Swanson as Kristen Connor, a shy and naive girl
- Michael Rapaport as Remy, a lonely and confused student
- Ice Cube as Fudge, an afrocentric senior
- Jennifer Connelly as Taryn, a junior and a lesbian
- Tyra Banks as Deja, Malik's girlfriend and fellow track runner
- Regina King as Monet, Kristen's roommate
- Jason Wiles as Wayne, Malik's roommate who begins dating Kristen
- Cole Hauser as Scott Moss, the leader of a racist Neo-Nazi gang
- Busta Rhymes as Dreads, Fudge's best friend
- Laurence Fishburne as Professor Maurice Phipps, a political science teacher at Columbus University
- Bradford English as Officer Bradley, an officer on the campus
- Jay R. Ferguson as Billy
- Andrew Bryniarski as Knocko
- Trevor St. John as James
- Talbert Morton as Erik
- Adam Goldberg as David Isaacs, Remy's Jewish roommate
- 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)
According to Box Office Mojo, Higher Learning grossed $38,290,723 in the United States, with $20,200,000 in rentals. It ranked #17 amongst highest grossing R-rated movies in 1995.
Laurence Fishburne won an Image Award, and Ice Cube was nominated an Image Award in 1996.
Critical response 
The film received 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 wrote: "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)
Higher Learning currently holds a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 34 reviews.
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).
- "Higher Learning | review, synopsis, book tickets, showtimes, movie release date | Time Out London". Timeout.com. Retrieved 2015-01-27.
- "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