Most people remember John Singleton from his 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, an unforgettably striking debut from a filmmaker who knew how to straddle empathy and tension. The film became both a foundation and defining facet of Singleton’s legacy almost to the exclusion of all else, doing what Illmatic did for Nas’s career; everything which came after would always be compared to that incredible first.
Yet Singleton, who died in April 2019, entered into Hollywood and left it doing something he was so unnervingly skilled at; the action of place-making. In Rosewood he captured the shift from balmy serenity to palpable horror and in Shaft, the inescapable, brightly-lit streets of New York were a character of their own in a retelling of white violence and corrupt justice. Singleton had an intuitive understanding of the politics and fragility of placemaking, and when he looked at his city of Los Angeles (which he did often), he steadily transported viewers through the communities he understood as central to questions on belonging and displacement. This is most apparent and memorable in 1995’s Higher Learning, his foray into the experiences of Black students who found themselves at a predominantly white institution where they tried to both find their place and simultaneously stand apart from an environment that refused to see them.
For the most part, anyone who went to a PWI will understand the need to find or create spaces with people who understand your reality, not simply as a student maneuvering through the bureaucracy of higher education, but a Black person moving through institutions historically built to exclude them. This exclusion is embedded into the DNA of higher education from institution names and enrollment policies to curriculums and the treatment of faculty. While in university, I remember a popular Criminology and Sociology professor whose dreadlocks and nonchalant, minding-my-own-business demeanor always had students asking him if he could spare a joint. After a while it became something humorous, even though the covert violence behind that question was unmistakably clear. That this person was in a position of power was seemingly impossible for them to fathom.
Throughout the years, a number of television shows have sought to mirror Black student life at PWIs, with Dear White People being the most recent iteration. It’s hard to imagine that Higher Learning did not influence the Netflix show, whose characters though they deliver more tongue-in-cheek wittiness on racial power dynamics, owe a hat tilt to the place-making legacy of Singleton.
Starring Omar Epps, Tyra Banks, a stand-out Busta Rhymes, Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, and future Academy-Award winner Regina King, Higher Learning waded into the waters of Black student life at the fictional Columbus University, placed in LA. This motley crew of athletes, studious academics and cynical freedom fighters converged at the university with their experiences threaded together by their blackness, and made individual via the ways they chose to exist in the midst of anti-blackness. Early on we are introduced to Fudge (played by Ice Cube) in a smoke-filled room holding court on the topic of corporations as the real shapers of American democracy, and fiscal responsibility as a pathway to black liberation. His dorm acts as a meeting ground, printing office, computer lab and dance club for the Black students on campus, both the senior classmen like himself and freshmen such as Malik (Epps) Deja (Banks) and Monet (King). Fudge has been a student for almost six years, making this “old trout” somewhat of an elder for the “new fish.” His shelves are a who’s who of Black critical thought in the diaspora, with posters calling for liberation, unity and pride. He is positioned as the film’s radical center and has regular interactions with campus police who often ask for his student ID, tail him and his friends for amusement and break up his parties for noise violations.
When it comes to campus police and Black students, places of community easily become “suspicious” zones of surveillance and harassment. In April of last year, a Black student at Barnard College was detained after refusing to show his ID to the four “safety officers” who surrounded him. A similar incident occurred two months later at the University of Ottawa, where an officer left a student in handcuffs for two hours after accusing him of performing skateboarding tricks. Fudge’s abrasive responses to the various attempts at intimidation were a welcome respite because reality does not allow Black students to be anything but subservient in their run-ins with campus security. Here, Singleton crafted a Black character who could assert a certain semblance of control in the place he was in and created moments where others could do the same in their own ways.
It’s through Fudge that Malik first begins to wrestle with the reality of what he later calls being a “thoroughbred.” As a student athlete on a partial scholarship, he receives no financial support if he does not compete and win in the track and field events he dominates. Malik starts off resigned and cocky, but his feelings gradually morph into frustration and anger as his path to success is largely dependant on his need to “Run, nigga, run.” This statement, vocalized by Fudge over a game of Monopoly, crackles in the air as the two young men figure each other out. For the audience, it makes its way out of the film and takes on greater resonance for the lived experiences of Black people who have to constantly hustle and grind just so they can “make it.” An image of a hamster in a wheel, though jarring, is an appropriate visual representation of this claustrophobic rollercoaster. Malik would not have a place at Columbus were he not worth something to the university, and yet the relationship is not reciprocal and is instead transactional, with Malik bearing the emotional and physical weight that’s only slightly made easier by partial financial support.
In a 2018 report by the USC Race and Equity Center, statistics revealed that although Black male athletes comprised 55 percent of Power Five football teams and 56 percent of men’s basketball teams, they accounted for only 2.4 percent of the undergraduate population. There are millions to be made from university athletes and yet for the players themselves, unless they go professional, the pay-off is slim. It’s this tenuous relationship between student athletes and the institutions they attend that Singleton loudly portrayed in Higher Learning—and while the unfairness of this system began to grate against Malik, his partner and fellow athlete Deja censored herself into compliance. Although clearly aware and bothered, she chose not to go against the tide but to swim through it and emerge beyond the currents with a degree in hand and gratitude for the opportunity afforded to few. In the moments when Higher Learning attempts to highlight her place at the university and within the Black student base, it turns myopic and begins to falter.
“You’re a woman. I’m a black man,” Malik said to Deja while they stretched on the field. As she tried to explain her different but still oppressive day to day in their shared environment—“Those girls I stay with... who do you think they look at everytime something goes missing?”— Malik heard her, and then dismissed her. Deja’s womanhood was her protection; as he stripped her of her blackness, he failed to understand that a Black woman is never just a woman, and in university settings she moves carrying the misconceptions of not only gender bias but race as well. It’s in Fudge’s dorm where Monet goes after being called “A Black bitch,” by a white fraternity member who had sexually assaulted her roommate, Kristen (played by Kristy Swanson). Monet became Kristen’s support as her own friends walked away, but this show of solidarity is one Psychology of Women Quarterly discovered would not be reciprocated by white women in real-life settings.
According to the study, white women were less likely to intervene in situations of sexual assault if the perceived victim was a Black woman, even as they understood the danger in both situations. On university campuses Black women have to create places where both their gender and race have room to breathe, and it’s this specific reality of place that Higher Learning fell short of properly representing. Deja and Monet, the two most visible Black women in the film, exist around each other and within similar circles in relation to the men they choose to love, but they never have moments to truly engage. This is a loss to a story that could have benefited from the gaze of two women whose place in the university was also rife with verbal and physical violence.
The film ends in a state of unresolved questions. The educational experiences of the students, those who graduate (Fudge) and those who leave (Malik) are presented as hollow and pyrrhic because their classroom settings were only microcosms of the larger racial infractions they would face. Students often hear of the need to prepare themselves for the “real world,” as university is painted as a much easier detour to adult life. But for Black learners, detours do not exist on their life trajectories; only lessons and reminders. It’s this imbalance, couched in the naiveté of youth and the inevitability of anti-blackness in predominantly white spaces that Singleton rendered. Sometimes forcefully and other times with a much needed tenderness and even with its shortcomings, Higher Learning remains a film that understood what it means to make a space as you search for your place.
Tarisai Ngangura is a journalist and photographer documenting black lives across the globe. Find her on Twitter @FungaiSJ.