Higher Learning’s theatrical poster.

For most Black kids growing up, their perception of college was largely shaped by sitcoms and Spike Lee’s School Daze. Whether it was on The Parkers, seeing Tia & Tamera at the University of Michigan on Sister, Sister, and especially A Different World, if you were young and Black in America, something you saw on TV likely gave you an idea of what to “expect” when you finally set foot on a college campus.

For me, personally, my perception of college came from the aforementioned School Daze and also from John Singleton’s Higher Learning film. In a stark contrast to Daze, Higher Learning dropped audiences onto the diverse Columbus University campus, with students from many ethnic backgrounds and different walks of life. It scratched and scratched at the subtle scab of racial tension that bubbled just below the surface until, by the movie’s end, both literally and figuratively blood came rushing out as the scab was torn apart.

I admit, Tyra Banks was a big reason I remembered the movie for so long. Banks, then a prominent supermodel gaining traction in the mid-90s and flirting with the idea of acting, was Higher Learning’s beautiful love interest to Omar Epps’s Malik Williams. The very first image of Banks on screen has her stretching in the sun, sweat adorned on her forehead and wearing spandex pants and a top as a track athlete. It was because of Tyra that I made a mental note to holla at a track girl when I eventually got to college (I did try, roughly twelve years later; I just didn’t succeed). And yes, there was the added bonus of the love scene, one in which Tyra’s beautiful brown skin glistened in the shadows as she and Malik had sex and Raphael Saadiq’s “Ask of You” (which is STILL the cut) played in the background.

But this ain’t about my thirst.

What Higher Learning was REALLY memorable for, was the questions it dared to ask and the images it put out there. Singleton, fresh off his socially jarring debut Boyz N The Hood and the hood haiku in film Poetic Justice, had the audacity in 1995 to insist that racial tension still existed in the United States. How could he, when then-President Bill Clinton had effectively catered to a Black electorate and seemingly improved race relations in ways the Reagan and Bush administrations failed to nearly a decade before? Singleton dared to rip the wool away from Americans’ eyes and remind us that society hadn’t changed very much at all.

Twenty years later, Higher Learning reminds us of how college presents one with the opportunity to find themselves or get lost trying. It’s hard to be sympathetic for Remy (Michael Rapaport in a breakout role), the white student who has a rough encounter with Fudge (played by Ice Cube) while seeking a place to belong and who gets in bed with the white supremacist group on campus. Remy’s struggle to belong eventually manifests itself in him becoming an agent in a “race war” in the film’s final ten minutes. Truly, it’s less about Remy hating people who aren’t white, and more about him feeling like his actions proved his belonging (Houston rapper Express suggested as much in his Higher Learning-inspired album just two years ago). In the end, Remy meets a tragic fate, but it’s telling how he is handled in comparison to Malik.

Malik Williams is also seeking to find himself; and though initially not sold on the Black Nationalist group on campus (who hold amongst their membership rappers Ice Cube and Busta Rhymes), Malik moves in with them and adopts their philosophy. Malik is rebellious. He argues with his track teammates, threatens to drop out, and even has snarky comments for Professor Maurice Phipps, played by Laurence Fishburne in yet another mentor-father role. In the film’s final minutes, as Malik chases down Remy for his actions, he is overtaken by police and the police immediately assume he is the aggressor. They take him down with force yet they at least try to coax Remy.

And finally, there is the character of Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson). Kristen comes onto the campus in the same position as Remy, with no real direction and sense of self at first. Her character is complex in that she comes into her own sexually, being attracted to both men and women (the always subtly lovely Jennifer Connolly). In one particular scene that was confusing for my childhood mind, Kristen has sex with her boyfriend, though the images interchange and imply that Kristen has slept with Connolly’s character Taryn. It is Kristen who takes the initiative to assemble a “peace rally,” which, ironically, becomes the very venue where all the violence takes off.

higher learning-DVD

Higher Learning DVD release box-cover

To say nothing of the mini-narratives that course through Higher Learning’s other scenes. Fudge insisting that the history books are lying. The entitlement one male feels after attempting to take advantage of Kristen, going so far as to curse out her Black roommate just to talk to her. The hint to women “not walking on campus alone at night” because it’s unsafe. The idea of being sent to the financial aid office because of tuition issues.

Race matters in Higher Learning. And twenty years later, in an America where people insist that we’re “postracial,” it has never been more clear that people are still treated differently depending on their race or their gender. Singleton couldn’t possibly have predicted an all-white lacrosse team being involved in a sexual assault incident with a ypung Black woman; or a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, at the end of which the shooter took his own life. And yet all this has happened in the years since the film’s release.

At the end of Boyz N The Hood, Singleton stamped the words “Increase the Peace” on-screen just before the credits hit. Higher Learning revisits that, displaying the word “UNLEARN” as the screen fades to black this time. In one scene in particular, Professor Phipps tells Malik and Fudge, “being Black doesn’t free you from being a responsible individual,” to which Malik retorts, “Yeah, but being a responsible individual doesn’t free you from being Black.”

Twenty years later, and especially in light of #BlackLivesMatter, I remember this conversation about “the game” and results mattering more than rhetoric. Just as Malik and Kristen hesitate to shake hands at first at the end of Higher Learning, I wonder if that’s where we are in 2015 – where people at least cautiously trust in the possibility, even if they don’t trust the person. I don’t know if the “game” can be won by minorities, but perhaps it can be changed. American society is at a critical juncture right now, where some voices used to be loud enough to drown out others, but now the others have discovered they, too, can be heard. It’s just so damn difficult to “unlearn” when the people who could use the lesson the most, aren’t willing to be taught.