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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Higher Learning (1994)

"Young man, you have to rid yourself of this attitude that the world owes you something. You must strip yourself of that mentality. It breeds laziness."
- Professor Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne)

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: July 11, 2001

Stars: Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rapaport, Laurence Fishburne
Other Stars: Jennifer Connelly, Ice Cube, Jason Wiles, Tyra Banks, Cole Hauser, Regina King
Director: John Singleton

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for scenes of violence and sexuality and for strong language
Run Time: 02h:07m:46s
Release Date: July 03, 2001
UPC: 043396067684
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+A-A- B

DVD Review

Within the stressful and esteem-crushing conditions of a modern college campus, it's easy to lose your way. Remy (Michael Rapaport, Beautiful Girls) has no friends, interests, and little social skills, and it leads him to align with a group of Nazi skinheads. In a fit of rage reminiscent of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, he destroys his cramped dorm room and reveals his complete lack of self-control. When questioned about the matter, he pulls a gun on two studentsˇone Jewish and one African-Americanˇand threatens their life with racial epithets. This is just one powerful example of the tensions that are prevalent in Higher Learning, John Singleton's gripping exploration of the tumultuous life of a college campus. Far from just painting a picture of race relations, this story takes a broad look at the variety of difficult issues facing young people today. Although its grand scope does present some flaws, the resounding force of several tense-filled scenes helps to create an impressive, emotional film.

Malik Williams (Omar Epps, Love and Basketball) enters Columbus University as an African-American track star with a large chip on his shoulder about his importance. With each successive obstacle and subsequent failure, the bright young man begins to realize that it takes more than talent to play the "game" at this college. Conservative Professor Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne) tries to counsel this frustrated freshman on the work required to succeed. Although Malik initially rejects the Professor's help, he soon realizes that he would be wise to listen to his ideas. Fudge (Ice Cube)ˇa professional studentˇalso tries to lead Malik down the correct path, but everything's complicated by a system that attempts to block African-Americans at each corner. After facing trouble from the skinheads, they strike out against their oppressors with their fists. Unfortunately, their actions probably matter little in the overall scheme of this difficult university structure.

However, the college life isn't easy on the other side of the tracks either. Naďve freshman Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson) begins college with few ideas about the future and her place in it. After a terrifying experience with a local fraternity boy, she realizes that the world is not the rosy place she envisioned. With help from attractive, strong Taryn (Jennifer Connelly, Requiem for a Dream) and sensitive guy Wayne (Jason Wiles, Kicking and Screaming), she begins to discover her true personality. However, the continued tension between the races threatens to lead them to a violent disaster.

Omar Epps leads an impressive cast of skilled actors that add a tremendous amount of depth to the story. When Malik eventually breaks down, Epps' raw emotions spring from his soul with significant force. Tyra Banks also performs wonderfully as Deja, a strong character who loves Malik but won't let him off the hook about his life. In her first film, she brings a surprising amount of weight to the role. Laurence Fishburne does his usual fine job in a lesser role, and Ice Cube gives his best screen performance in what could have been a one-note character. Michael Rapaport has the difficult task of making Remy's actions at least somewhat understandable, and he gives it his best shot. Although we despise his character, the society has created this monster through its neglect and constant degradation of his heart.

Writer/director John Singleton burst onto the scene in 1991 with the release of his acclaimed story of the difficulties of urban lifeˇBoyz N' the Hood. This emotional film was one of the first to attempt to realistically explore life in South Central Los Angeles in the 1990s. While it contained the usual problems for a first-time director, its heart was true, leading to its immense popularity. This production also provided a rare opportunity for scores of African-American talent to reach mass audiences. Talented actors like Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Regina King, and Ice Cube all enhanced their careers significantly through their roles.

In Higher Learning, Singleton expands his coverage and tackles a large array of difficult issues. Any one of the main stories could cover an entire movie, but it would lack the overall picture presented here. While this works well, it also hinders the film from achieving greater character development. This is especially the case with Kristen, who lacks the depth of Remy and Malik. Even with some minor script miscues, the emotional aspects remain essential and touching. Singleton may have stretched slightly too far, but he deserves loads of credit for taking a big chance and trying to relate a difficult story.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Higher Learning includes an excellent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents all of the movie in nearly pristine colors. In the opening shot, the bright red, white, and blue of the American flag shines and present one of numerous impressive examples on this picture. Although it lacks the near-perfection of reference transfers, it falls only slightly from this perch. Very few defects exist to distract from the film, and the images sparkle with clarity.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoSpanish, Frenchyes
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Similar to the image transfer, this 5.1-channel Dolby Digital audio track features remarkable levels of clarity. The numerous soul, alternative rock, and metal songs blaze across the sound field and add considerable power to the final story. The dialogue is easily understandable, even in the heated moments, and the surrounds are utilized nicely throughout the running time. This disc also contains an effective Dolby Surround track, which only drops slightly below its companion in terms of depth and force.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Poetic Justice, Boyz 'N the Hood
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Writer/Director John Singleton
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Higher Learning features an enjoyable commentary from writer/director John Singleton that contains plenty of intriguing thoughts about the story. Much of the material in this script stems from his own experiences while attending college at USC. Singleton openly explains how numerous scenes originated and shows a refreshing willingness to describe his own life and its connection to the film. It's also impressive to see a filmmaker willing to admit that he's still growing and there are flaws in his creations. The class scenes may not be too realistic, but it's more understandable because he was such a young writer. Singleton utilizes a conversational tone that makes the track entertaining and insightful without the highbrow tone of some directors. It also includes small vignettes about the production and the actors, which adds to the light tone. A few original casting choices are quite interesting. Sidney Poitier and Samuel Jackson were his first choices for the Lawrence Fishburne character, and Leonardo Dicaprio was seriously considered for Michael Rappaport's role. Singleton speaks nearly constantly throughout this trackˇone of the better director's commentaries of recent releases.

This release also includes selected filmographies for Singleton, Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Fishburne, and the other major actors. Theatrical trailers also exist for this film, Poetic Justice, and Boyz N' the Hood. All three previews appear in full-screen transfers with fairly quiet sound.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

John Singleton takes a significant step forward in his progression as a filmmaker with Higher Learning and its complex issues. His movies can speak to everyone about tolerance and developing a greater understanding of the human condition. Although he falters several times and may lose focus, the goal and ultimate message remains at the forefront. I look forward to following his work closely for many years to come.


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