It is no surprise that director John Singleton’s movie Higher Learning didn’t do well at the box office when it premiered in 1995. A movie primarily about race relations with a cast of actors who were mostly unknown at the time and a story that includes fraternity rape, bisexuality, neo-nazi violence, and a tragic ending is pretty much a marketing director’s worst nightmare.
Throw in bisexuality and lesbianism, and you’ve really got a marketing problem on your hands.
It was a testament to John Singleton’s credibility within Hollywood at the time that the movie got made at all. Fresh from the success of 1991’s Boys in the Hood (and the not-so-successful Poetic Justice of 1993), Singelton was clearly attempting to chart new territory with Higher Learning.
The movie follows the lives of three freshman at a state university: Kristen, played by Kristi Swanson (star of the first Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie); Malik, played by Omar Epps (Love and Basketball, The Wood and previously a regular on ER), and Remy, played by Michael Rappaport (Boston Public).
The film also has an extremely large number of supporting characters played by notable actors, including Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) as Taryn, the lesbian student to whom Kristen finds herself drawn. Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), Ice Cube (Barbershop, Friday, Three Kings), Tyra Banks (Love and Basketball, Coyote Ugly), Regina King (If These Walls Could Talk 2), and Cole Hauser (All Over Me, School Ties, Good Will Hunting).
Epps’ Malik is a rather angry young track star who has a difficult time adjusting to the demands of college at first. The movie follows him as he falls for another (female) athlete (Banks), gets his hat handed to him by a gruff-but-caring professor (Fishburne), and tries to absorb the double-standards and racial tensions that exist on campus.
Rappaport’s Remy is a confused, lonely freshmen who doesn’t quite fit in, and the film follows his transition to a vengeful Skinhead who ultimately turns to violence when he cannot make sense of his place in the world.
Swanson’s character Kristen is a confused, naive freshman woman who tries too hard to fit in to the party-hard Greek scene, until she is raped one night by a frat boy who has had too much to drink. Afterwards, she tells her roommate Monet (King), who calls up her (black) friends to go to the (all-white) frat house and kick some ass. The ensuing confrontation between the black and white men is clearly about more than just the rape.
In the weeks and months following the rape, Kristen stops trying to fit into the party scene and starts attending women’s safety groups with Taryn. As a slightly New Age-y lesbian with long hair and simple clothing, Taryn is played convincingly by Connelly. Taryn is soft-spoken and kind, befriending Kristen in her first days at the University, and then taking care of Kristen after she is raped by a fraternity player. Although the word “lesbian” or “bisexual” is never spoken, somewhere along the way Kristen figures out that Taryn plays for the other team, and she finds herself inexplicably drawn to her.