IT'S ALWAYS INTERESTING to watch new directors develop their filmmaking skills, and John Singleton is a particularly valuable example. He's talented, he's got things to say, and he has the potential to keep moving upward. At age 23, he made his first feature film, Boyz N the Hood, written directly from his own experiences.
At that time I was the same age, had just started reviewing movies, and found Boyz easily the best movie of the year. I felt Singleton had just opened up a whole world to me, and what's more I felt he was speaking on my level--neither overly intellectual nor insultingly pedantic. The film had the moral energy of something made by a person who's been dying to tell a story for ages and, at long last, gets the chance.
When you are full of creative gumption and finally discover a suitable medium where it can be unleashed, you can do no wrong--at first. Singleton faltered with his second effort, a gooey road trip/love story that focused on the emotional turmoil of a young woman. Still, I am inclined to forgive Poetic Justice, mainly because Singleton was taking an abrupt turn from the usual choices made by black directors, which invariably involve more inner-city male violence. Here Singleton was trying to get outside the city and inside the mind and perspective of a woman--even if that woman was only Janet Jackson.
Higher Learning, Singleton's latest effort, shows the kind of healthy progress that can only come from enduring the pain of failure. Cinematically, this is Singleton's best film so far, with outstanding cinematography by Peter Lyons Collister and clean, purposeful editing. The story suffers greatly from an error in judgment at the end, but the picture displays the kind of raw power seen in Boyz.
Higher Learning takes place at the fictitious Columbus University, a multicultural environment that Singleton uses as a microcosm of society. The obviousness of this premise would be laughable except for Singleton's earnestness to his task. He has based the picture on his own college experience, and what he puts on screen really does capture the bewilderment of being thrust into the melting pot of a college campus.
In simple, neat strokes, the director contrasts students by the music they play and the dorm room decorations they choose. He creates a small set of characters whose situations will stir the empathy of anyone who has ever attended college: the naked feeling of being told you are not registered for a class you thought you had; the desperation of seeking social contact when it seems like everybody else has already established their own; the sobering realization that a professor isn't going to accept any excuses.
A few individual storylines emerge, one of which concerns a young woman (Kristy Swanson) who, having endured a date rape, is now entertaining the idea of becoming a lesbian. Here Singleton's experience with Poetic Justice really pays off: he manages to give a sensitive, engaging treatment to a subject that could easily be mishandled.
The main thread of the story, though, involves Omar Epps, a black athlete who is at school on scholarship and resents the pressure he feels to perform. Epps' struggle mirrors Singleton's own experience, and once again the director's earnestness wins out over his obviousness. When a black professor (played with an odd New England affectation by Laurence Fishburne) gives Epps simple advice about trying harder, it almost seems like a revelation.
Singleton is also to be applauded for the sheer formal beauty of several of his scenes. A fast-paced relay race is followed with the precision of Riefenstahl. A scene of a male and female athlete doing stretching exercises together leads perfectly, satisfyingly into a sex scene between the two.
Where Singleton falters is in the third thread of his narrative, which follows the progression of a dim-witted white mid-westerner whose insecurities are seized upon by a group of Nazi skinheads. Skinheads are hardly prevalent forces on college campuses, and Singleton further strains believability by creating a posse of black activist students who do battle against them.
Worse yet, he never allows the fledgling racist student (well-played by Jewish actor Michael Rapaport) any chance out of his situation. The student starts out pathetic and just gets worse, and his weakness drags down several of the film's strongest characters.
Why not create a movie that ends, instead, with the strong characters uplifting the weak? Until the climax, Singleton had come so far with Higher Learning; it's a shame he felt the need to fall back into the tragic structure of Boyz N the Hood.
As the movie ends, Singleton's amateurish tendencies come to full light as he places an American flag on the screen and types the word "unlearn" across it like some sort of glib public-service announcement. That's a more suitable message for the filmmaker who, having come a long way, still has a few things to unlearn before he can make good on the potential he so plainly possesses.
Higher Learning is playing at Catalina (881-0616), Century Gateway (792-9000) and De Anza (745-2240) cinemas.
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth