'Higher Learning' provokes shallow reaction

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

The voice on the phone insisted, "This feature is rated 'R'. We will be checking IDs at the box office and you must be 17 or older, or accompanied by your parent."

Interesting, I thought. The voice was a recording and the subject was John Singleton's new film, "Higher Learning," which depicts current sociopolitical issues on a fictional modern campus named Columbus University. None of the other rated 'R' movies playing at the theater had such a staunch warning on the theater's recording so I wondered why it had been singled out. Then I remembered the L.A. riots Singleton's first film, "Boyz N the Hood," had caused and my expectations were piqued.

I was even more surprised at the theater, where a police officer was seen hanging out during the screening of "Higher Learning." His presence, standing silently in the shadows, lent the event a volatile sense of danger.

I spoke with the theater's assistant manager and she readily acknowledged the officer's presence.

"We always bring in an officer to any movie we feel might bring out feelings of aggression in the audience," she informed me, "Usually it's gang-related movies. We just want to be careful we can't do everything ourselves. We want to be able to have someone on hand if a potentially violent situation occurs."

Given this supercharged setup, I expected a provocative movie that spurred me to action. I expected an angry audience buzzing with heretofore hidden anxieties and frustration with their fellow man.

What I got was much worse.

The movie itself was entirely too two-dimensional and convoluted to propel its audience to violence. The only actions the audience was taking was tapping their feet to the groovy soundtrack. But they sure loved it when the Neo-Nazis were beaten. They cheered during a fight scene and clapped up a storm after one of the characters shoved a pistol into his mouth and pulled the trigger. And their indignant jeering was much louder during a brief girl-girl kiss than during a scene when one of the girls was date-raped.

What is going on here? After preparing for an irate fight, all that happened was a display of childish blood-lust previously associated with ancient Rome and a twisted view of sexuality that included a nonexistent sense of sexual assault.

Movies are often blamed for forcing their content on audiences and encouraging the same behavior offscreen as on. But movies can reflect their audience's inner feelings. It's sad to see people's lopsided displays of glee depending on who is the victim of violence.

Despite its shortcomings, "Higher Learning" presented both the black protagonist and the white Neo-Nazi convert as equal victims of social tensions and peer pressure. Forcing characters into types indicative of "good" and "bad" people is exactly the sort of psychological behavior that causes one racial group to kill another.

One of the joys of movie-watching is having images and ideas produce an emotional reaction, and then looking inward and evaluating why. Perhaps if people would respect their emotions and not devaluate them by saying "Oh, it's just a movie," and realize their potential, they could learn a thing or two about themselves. They might even avoid a tragedy.

"Take It . or Leave It" is an arts column that appears every Thursday.

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