You can hear it in the hostile thrust of sitcom insults, in the ideological mind-jab of talk radio. You can hear it in the most obnoxious social gambit of our time the way that just about everyone seems to hurry conversation along with an impatient ''Right right right,'' as if to say, ''Uh-huh, I got your point, shut up.'' As America's spirit grows nervous, angry, even vengeful, it often appears as if we've finally stopped listening to one another. Only on college campuses, however, has the spirit of domineering, me-first righteousness the reckless assertion of self-been cast as a form of liberal enlightenment, a sign that people are finally throwing off their blinders and seeing things the way they really are.
Whatever its flaws, Higher Learning, the new drama written and directed by John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood), is undeniably a movie of the moment. It's set on the fictional campus of Columbus University, a progressive institution in which men and women, gays and straights, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians mingle with deceptive intimacy, a floating unease that's perpetually on the verge of eruption. The film's characters are a kind of TV-processed cross section of campus types we might be watching a socially conscious Academia, 90210. Malik (Omar Epps), a track star who attends Columbus on scholarship, thinks his studies are a sham, a rigged system run by the white establishment. Then he meets an elegant black professor (Laurence Fishburne) who tries to jar him out of his streetwise defensiveness. Kristen (Kristy Swanson), a freshman, is drawn to the frat-house party culture until she lands in bed with a guy who refuses to stop when she asks him to wear a condom. This violation sends her into the protective embrace of a friendly lesbian (Jennifer Connelly). Remy (Michael Rapaport), the film's representative Paranoid White Guy, is so oppressed by how little respect he's given that he's driven to join a cult of neo-Nazi skinheads.
Singleton's last film, Poetic Justice, was a gooey, pretentious mess, so it's a relief to see him drawing on the kinds of sturdily middlebrow storytelling verities that served him in Boyz N the Hood. When Malik gets on an elevator with Kristen, who nervously holds her purse as she realizes that she's alone with a young black man, the scene eloquently makes its point: that prejudice will always be a delusion, a way of blotting out people's humanity by assigning them to groups. It's not long, though, before Singleton begins to pigeonhole his characters as automatically as they do one another. At Columbus, the cliques and factions are portrayed as rigidly as the high school caste system in any John Hughes movie. There are the middle-class African-American rebels, led by a career student named Fudge (Ice Cube), who mingle in separatist solidarity; the frat-house jocks and babes, who ritually booze themselves into party oblivion; the take-back-the-night feminists turning sisterhood into the world's most furious support group. All of these types do exist on campus, of course. Yet don't the students at Columbus ever hang out (nd relax? Aren't there any friendly jocks? Any lusty heterosexual feminists? Despite some likable performances (Epps is especially winning), the drama in Higher Learning is constricted, hemmed in by Singleton's compulsion to view his characters as walking paradigms of racial and sexual politics.
The film's least convincing character is Remy, the born-again skinhead. Aryan youth groups, after all, don't exactly constitute a towering threat to our universities. So it's a shock when this subplot completely takes over the movie. At a climactic peace-and-love rally, Remy hauls his rifle onto a rooftop and begins firing at random, inciting a bloody showdown between his white goon squad and the campus' militant blacks. This is madness: academia reduced to a lurid tribal gang war a rumble. Yet Singleton seems to think he's exposing the ugly skeleton of college race relations. After giving Fishburne's bow-tied prof one lofty speech after another about the need for perseverance and discipline, he ends up stirring our emotions in the cauldron of the new national culture of intolerance. During the final battle, in which the campus security police behave in nearly as racist a fashion as the skinheads (the key moment is staged beneath a painting of Thomas Jefferson), Singleton's threadbare hate-mongering becomes loathsome, a way of pandering to the most apocalyptic fantasies of black victimization. It will be a true sign of the times if his approach pays off at the box office. Higher Learning starts out as a liberal message movie, but it turns into a demagogic rabble-rouser, a shrewdly incendiary exploitation of these wayward days of rage. C