Higher Learning (1995)

If you create a user account, you can add your own review of this DVD

Released 5-Apr-2004

Cover Art

This review is sponsored by

Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Audio Commentary-Director
Filmographies-Cast & Crew
Theatrical Trailer
Trailer-Baby Boy, Bad Boys
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 1995
Running Time 123:21
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (64:51) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4,5 Directed By John Singleton

Sony Pictures Home Entertain
Starring Omar Epps
Kristy Swanson
Michael Rapaport
Jennifer Connelly
Ice Cube
Jason Wiles
Tyra Banks
Cole Hauser
Laurence Fishburne
Bradford English
Regina King
Busta Rhymes
Jay R. Ferguson
Case ?
RPI $19.95 Music Tori Amos
Stanley Clarke
Ice Cube

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
French Audio Commentary
German Audio Commentary
Italian Audio Commentary
Spanish Audio Commentary
Dutch Audio Commentary
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement Yes, Does everyone in the world wear Nike?
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
- Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, July 4, 1776, Philadelphia.

     Well, it works as a theory anyway. The reality is even more self-evident - the qualities of Life, Liberty and Happiness are more richly poured upon the heads of White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males of a particular socio-economic class in America. As Professor Phipps (Laurence Fishburne) would say, "Welcome to the real world." Or, more accurately, welcome to John Singleton's overblown, over-simplified version of it as it's played out on a fictitious college campus.

      When the film Higher Learning was released in 1995 it received quite a lot of attention as a gritty representation of the hotbed of violence, rape and hate crimes that lurked not too far from the surface of tertiary educational life in the US. Viewed through a lens that telescopes 10 years or so from then, with the images of such horrors as Columbine High School proliferated around its edges, the film does not travel well through time. It now appears as a cinematic smorgasbord of stereotypical images, with a clumsy and hefty feel to its self-conscious dialogue. The characters appear like walking, talking billboards for their particular peccadillo or problem - as if they wear sandwich boards with "I'm the repressed black," "I'm the victimised woman," "I'm the ticking time bomb of a disenfranchised kid," "I'm the token lesbian......." - you get my drift.

      It's intake day at Columbus University. We cut from a full-frame of the Stars and Stripes to scenes of students showing all the hallmarks of participants at a Nuremberg rally - chanting and gesticulating in unison, with film angles that show more than passing homage to Leni Riefenstahl's work. Wandering through the crowd are a group of disparate freshmen and women, Malik Williams (Omar Epps) - a black athlete with all his hurts and instincts from life in the 'hood painfully evident; Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson) - a dewy faced innocent from Orlando; Monet (Regina King) - the sassy black queen of all she surveys; and Remy (Michael Rapaport) - the gormless and friendless farm kid from Idaho. Over the course of the film, each is to have their own private epiphany which all build to a devastating collective experience. Kristen ignores the gentle advice from political lesbian, Taryn (Jennifer Connelly) to be self-protective, and pays the price of suffering date rape. Malik resists the invitations of his girlfriend Deja (Tyra Banks) in order to hang out with his homies, Fudge (Ice Cube) and Dreads (Busta Rhymes). And Remy misses out on the chance of a wholesome friendship with his gentle Jewish roommate David Isaacs (Adam Goldberg) by choosing instead to ingratiate himself with a bunch of neo-Nazi thugs led by Scott Moss (Cole Hauser).

      What ensues is a grinding, laboured pathway to a violent dénouement. Whilst Malik picks a fight with the world, Kristen explores her sexuality and social conscience. Fudge pontificates on life for the African American in very poor imitation of Malcolm X, while Remy shaves his head and attempts to win friends and influence people by sticking a heavily booted foot in their heads.

      The entire piece presents as a clumsy, confused offering which never really manages to find any cohesion. Fishburne tries his utmost best as the inspirational teaching mentor, but even he finds it difficult to rise above the stereotype with his clichéd dialogue. There is no real depth to be found here - little is genuinely explored about the characters, their motivations, or even their interactions, aside from their violent encounters. The plot is obvious and didactic to a point that verges on the insulting. For this reason, all the possible impact or introspection on how or why we are so intolerant of each other is almost completely lost. This is a shame - because there is much to ponder here. From an American perspective, there is a disturbing history of violence that directly contravenes those noble sentiments of Thomas Jefferson.

      Statistically speaking, the numbers are frightening. In a lecture at the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in January 2003, Professor of History, Ira M. Leonard presented some horrific facts that I shall paraphrase here: 

At least 753,000 Native American Indians were the victims of warfare and genocide between 1622 and 1900 in the United States of America. The number for African-Americans might equal or exceed the estimate for the Indians, 750,000.

Approximately 5,000 individuals were known to have been lynched between 1882 and 1968, and about 2,000 more killed in labor-management violence.

Horrendous as this sounds it pales when compared to the major form of American violence. Individual interpersonal violence, in sharp contrast to group violence, is very frequent, sometimes very personal -- and far deadlier than group violence.

Instances of personal violence include but are not limited to bar room brawls, quarrels between acquaintances, business associates, lovers or sexual rivals, family members, or during the commission of a robbery, rape, mugging, or other crime.

During the 20th century alone, well over 10 million Americans were victims of violent crimes -- and 10 percent of them -- or
1,089,616 -- were murdered between 1900 and 1997. The "total" number of "officially reported" homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes between 1937 and 1970 was 9,816,646, but these were undercounts!

Every year during the 20th century at least 10 percent of the crimes committed have been violent crimes -- homicides, aggravated assaults, forcible rapes and robberies. Between 1900 and 1997, there were 1,089,616 homicides. How were they murdered? 375,350 by firearms and the rest were due to other means, including beating, strangling, stabbing and cutting, drowning, poisoning, burning and axing.

Between 1900 and 1971, 596,984 Americans were murdered. Between 1971 and 1997, there were another 592,616 killed in similar ways.

More Americans were killed by other Americans during the 20th century than died in the Spanish-American war, World War I, World War II, the Korean police action, and the Vietnam War combined.

      And nor should those of us who live in other lands than the US of A feel even remotely complacent. Human beings have a shared culture of violence to our fellow humans that beggars belief. Collectively, we are expert practitioners of xenophobia and victimisation that leads to every kind of brutality imagined.

      It was with that in mind that I chose to review this film, looking for some exploration of those themes, particularly in a microcosm like a university. Unfortunately, this movie offers little by way of genuine examination. Simply typing the word "unlearn" at the end of the film is far from enough to make it a true investigation of tribalism and violence. In mitigation, it's a better film than the woeful Rosewood that Singleton went on to make a few years later, but as a time tested piece of cinema, it falls well short of its mark.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


     The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, 16x9 enhanced.

     Generally the sharpness leaves a little to be desired. It's not bad exactly, it just suffers a little bit of a loss of contrast. There is a mild amount of low level noise, though not significant amounts, and the grain levels are very good indeed. The print also has a significant amount of hazy halation around objects which is somewhat distracting at times. Detail was mostly good throughout.

     The colour palette was generally excellent with full whites and blacks in evidence, and a rich, lush colour range displayed.

     Aside from fairly minor aliasing, the transfer was largely free of MPEG artefacts or film to video artefacts.

     Subtitles were a little abbreviated but acceptable, timely and easy to read.

     This disc is an RSDL disc, with the layer change placed between Chapters 14 and 15, at 64:51. The change is brief, non-intrusive and smooth.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


     I thought it curious that the French audio track is delivered in 5.1, whereas all other language tracks were Dolby Digital 2.0. I briefly listened to the French track, and the absence of much meaningful surround sound assuaged me a little, but it still seemed strange.

     The dialogue was rendered quite cleanly, although some of the vernacular took a little bit of "tuning in" to. Audio sync was not a problem at all with this transfer, and was completely spot on.

    There was some fantastic music in the score, particularly Tori Amos' version of REM's song, Losing My Religion, but the soundtrack as a whole had some curious choices, with certain pieces sounding like remnants from the old 70s show, Police Woman! At other times, the overladen sentiment was a little difficult to tolerate. Overall, a very patchy and disjointed presentation from a musical perspective.

     There was absolutely no surround sound, and the sound that was present tended to feel somewhat flat and non directional. At times, however, the subwoofer got quite a workout, and the film benefited from the extra verve.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



     The menu design is static and silent.

Director's Commentary - John Singleton (Director)

     The commentary is actually a rather good blend of technical and anecdotal comments by Singleton, although his frequent musings on being so young and so successful were a little tiresome. It is apparent that he regards this film as his "art piece" - lingering lovingly over Kristen, Taryn and Wayne's bedroom scene to discuss it as "seamless." Funny, when I watched that scene for the first time, the word that sprang to my mind was "superfluous", with "pointless" and "meaningless" following rapidly behind. Ah well, it takes all sorts.


     A series of static, silent pages simply listing the films each cast or crew member had been involved in. The featured individuals are: John Singleton, Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rapaport, Jennifer Connelly, Ice Cube, Tyra Banks and Laurence Fishburne.

Theatrical Trailers

     Trailers for: Higher Learning (2:34), Baby Boy (2:22), and Bad Boys (2:39)

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on:

     The Region 1 version of this disc misses out on:

     There doesn't seem to be much in the comparison, as the extras otherwise appear identical. A quality 5.1 sound file would be an improvement, so I guess it's R1 by a nose (or perhaps an eardrum.)


     In attempting to cover a myriad of social ills, Singleton dilutes the power in all of the stories. There is no doubt that this is a well intentioned piece, but its narrative never really does the work that would be required for real impact to take effect.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Mirella Roche-Parker (read my bio)
Friday, March 26, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDSinger SGD-001, using S-Video output
DisplayTeac 76cm Widescreen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationTeac 5.1 integrated system
SpeakersTeac 5.1 integrated system

Other Reviews
DVD Net - Jules F
AllZone4DVD - NicholasH

Comments (Add)
Tire Me -