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John DoughertyFebruary 16, 2024
Laurence Fishburne, Omar Epps and Ice Cube in ‘Higher Learning’

February is Black History Month, and Catholic Movie Club is going to focus on the work of Black directors. I have invited a friend to join me each week to discuss these films with me, to have Black voices involved in this series. I hope you enjoy our dialogues as much as I have!

Set on the campus of the fictional Columbus University, “Higher Learning” (1995) interweaves the stories of three freshmen wrestling with identity and belonging. Malik (Omar Epps) is a star runner who finds his perspective challenged by militant Fudge (Ice Cube) and the demanding Professor Phipps (Laurence Fishburne). Kristen (Kristy Swanson), a sheltered young woman, joins a women’s group following a traumatic experience, where she grows in confidence and begins to discern her sexual identity. Finally Remy (Michael Rapaport), lonely and awkward, finds a darker sort of belonging with a group of white supremacists. Unlikely connections form and tensions build, leading to a violent conclusion. Characters are left to decide how they’ll use what they’ve learned to navigate a complicated world.

“Higher Learning” interweaves the stories of three freshmen wrestling with identity and belonging on a fictional college campus.

Writer-director John Singleton previously earned acclaim for his debut film, “Boyz n the Hood” (1991), for which he became the first African American and youngest person in history to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. His filmography includes “Rosewood” (1997), “Baby Boy” (2001) and “2 Fast 2 Furious” (2003), as well as co-creating the FX crime series “Snowfall.” Singleton died following a stroke in 2019, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most influential figures in modern Black cinema.

This week’s film was chosen by my guest, H. Jay Dunmore. He is an educator, mentor and entrepreneur of creative multimedia production. He is the managing director of Greycomm Studios and teaches Communication/Digital Media at Loyola University Maryland. In 2017, he was honored by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers for his work as a member and manager of the society’s Washington, D.C. section. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

John Dougherty: Tell me a little about your history with this movie.

H. Jay Dunmore:I went to see it in theaters when it came out [in high school]. I’ve liked [Singleton’s] movies since the beginning, since “Boyz n da Hood.” I always liked John Singleton’s perspective. Towards the end, before he passed, at the young age of 54, he had “Snowfall,” which was based on the drug epidemic of the early 1980s, based on facts but also adding his own creative elements to it. And of course [I liked] the hip hop artists [in the film]...Ice Cube and Busta Rhymes…that really in-your-face, strong presence, I liked that as well.

You work at a university, and I was wondering, how does the film connect to your experience of working with college students and being in this world?

I tell students that the campus is a microcosm: It’s a small example of what you’re going to experience in life. Some come with the understanding of “I’m here strictly for an education,” some come with a strong identity of knowing who they are, and some are like Remy, trying to find out who they are. The same thing happened with Malik, he was trying to find himself. He came in thinking he was this entitled athlete, but at the same time he had some experiences, and [the influence of] Professor Phipps, that…brought things into perspective for him. You can come in as who you think you are, but when you leave what is it going to shape you into?

“Higher learning” [includes]...learning who you are from a higher perspective. And at a Jesuit college, because of that idea of cura personalis [“care for the whole person”], the idea of examining the day and coming to understand who you are on a spiritual level, that’s a higher spiritual learning. At each college, students gain a better understanding of who they are and have mentors who challenge you to become more of your true, authentic self.

All three primary kids end up finding sort of an affinity group. Malik has Fudge and his friends. Kristen has a traumatic experience and she finds herself by joining the women’s group.Then obviously with Remy, [the skinheads] feed on his insecurity and he gets brought into their group with a sense of belonging. I was curious what you thought about that aspect of the story.

I tell students that, when they come to school, they experience different seasons. That first season is more like the introduction, where you have that first group of friends that you meet…at orientation. You hang out, maybe that’s September or October. But as you see what’s taking place [on campus], sometimes it shifts to a different season. Maybe some of those friends transition to that next chapter, but that’s where…finding different groups helps you to understand who you are. It’s a matter of testing out experiences, having conversations. Maybe it’s a highlight: this is definitely a part of who I am. Or it’s a strike, which isn’t a bad thing; you’re just finding out who you’re not.

John Singleton shone a light on something…people are finally beginning to see the reflection of that light.

This movie was made almost 30 years ago, but the way it talks about institutional racism, the radicalization of young white men, even the Christopher Columbus statue, all of that feels extremely relevant to what’s in the culture and the conversation right now. What struck you re-watching this in 2024?

Singleton was speaking to things that were obviously the case but really didn’t get the attention. He shone a light on something…people are finally beginning to see the reflection of that light. The fight is to continually make sure that that message is at the forefront, to keep telling people and telling people, and eventually, as we're seeing now, those things are getting the proper attention. And that’s the first step. With regard to the connection between culture and race and college, you have so many folks with so many diverse backgrounds…and it’s pretty much impossible to have a solution to end all solutions. But we know that we don’t know everything and that everybody’s unique experience has value.

Something else that I really enjoyed is that the visual language is so strong. Singleton is so interested in exploring how he can tell the story with the camera.

As a cinematographer and creative media producer, I can appreciate how he composed certain scenes. For example, with Remy he had that high-angle shot…that was a slow reveal [that he’s joined the skinheads]. It was really creative. He was touching on sensitive topics in a time when racial profiling and police brutality received national attention a few years prior [the death of Rodney King]. [The fact that] he was able to craft a message and also a perspective, in a creative way that…in this time now still applies, that’s awesome. This was his third film so he was experimenting and exploring different techniques towards finding his creative style.

Finally, what did you find most spiritually resonant about this film?

At the end, they show the word UNLEARN [superimposed on the screen]. That’s the focus of learning at a higher level: unlearning some of the things that we thought to be true when we’re presented with a greater perspective. There are just so many opportunities to learn and grow. We have those groups that support us but also… recognize and be open to those experiences that may not be what you’re used to. That allows for even greater growth. We’re required to be good stewards of what we’ve been given: our gifts, our talents, our abilities and our time. And that whole process of equipping ourselves with what we need to be the best versions of ourselves and to others, that's one part. But also that process of unlearning. There’s that one Scripture that comes to mind: “Don’t be conformed to the world’s way but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Obviously there’s a full abundance of opportunities to renew our mind, but it requires us to try to change our perspective.

I grew up in a very diverse city and attended a diverse high school. But for some, college is their first time being in a diverse environment. At Loyola, I’m a mentor to students who had never been in a position to have a Black professor and the opportunity to ask questions that allow them to unlearn. I let them know, “This is a safe space, you can ask some of those questions,” because that’s where conversations happen that change perspectives. It’s that process of respecting that unlearning but at the same time knowing that it’s an infinite and lifelong process.

“Higher Learning” is streaming on Amazon Prime, Peacock and Starz.

More: Film / Racism

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