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Singleton graduates to 'Higher Learning'

John Singleton is all of 26 years old now, and struggling to keep from repeating himself.

In 1991 he made a movie named "Boyz N the Hood." It was a great American film, a story of a father in South Central Los Angeles trying to raise his son outside the trap of gangs, drugs and guns. Its making has become Hollywood legend: how Singleton, himself from South Central, talked his way into the University of Southern California film school by hanging around and helping out on student films, how his screenplay was green-lighted by Columbia, how his movie took the 1991 Cannes Film Festival by storm.

But what does he do for an encore? Ever since "Boyz," Hollywood has been trying to get him to make it again. It's the same old story. The system is wary of the truly daring films, but once they're made, they don't think of taking another chance; they think of taking the same old chance all over again.

"After the success of `Boyz N the Hood,' everybody was trying to make another `Boyz,' " Singleton was saying. "There were several movies set in similar territory. I wanted to do all of Los Angeles - to do L.A. the way Woody Allen has New York or Spike Lee has Brooklyn. But they only wanted South Central - the same story again. After all the other movies came out, I said I'm going to have to change all the way up. I'm going to have to do something different."

His second film was "Poetic Justice" (1993), starring Janet Jackson as a hairdresser whose boyfriend is murdered in a senseless street shooting. She retreats into herself, determined not to let the world touch her again, until a mailman walks into her life and charms her, and convinces her to take a trip to Oakland on a mail run. In the movie's key scene, the truck breaks down next to the vast reunion picnic of an African-American family; they are mistaken for relatives, and the young girl is given some words of wisdom by one of the matriarchs, played by Maya Angelou.

What Singleton was doing is clear: By turning the film into a road picture, he was deliberately going on the road out of the inner city, and into other experiences of black America.

He does the same thing in his new film, "Higher Learning," which takes place on a college campus and shows blacks and others uneasily fitting into a campus framework that seems designed to separate people, not help them to discover one another. His campus, called Columbus University, has been balkanized by Political Correctness. There is a scene where a new black student is told of the local geography: where the black students hang out on campus, and the Latinos, and the whites, and the Asians.

The film's leads, who never really meet until a final scene, are a young black track star named Malik Williams (Omar Epps), who feels at sea during his first weeks on campus, and a young white woman named Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson), who is date-raped almost as soon as she arrives on campus. Ideological conflicts

To these and other new freshmen, the campus presents a variety of ideological choices, each competing for their attention. The choices come attached to characters: Fudge (Ice Cube), a "professional student" in his sixth year of leading the campus black militants; Professor Phipps (Laurence Fishburne), a no-nonsense African-American teacher; Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), a militant feminist, and a brilliant, twisted, Brandoesque skinhead (Cole Hauser), who isolates a disturbed outsider (Michael Rapaport) and recruits him.

Singleton says his film's structure, with so many stories and characters, gave the studio some problems. Although interlocking stories with lots of people have been told recently in films by John Sayles and Robert Altman, "I think they would have been satisfied if I would have just concentrated on any one part of the picture. Maybe just Kristen, the freshman girl. Or Malik. And they were disturbed by some of the dialogue, like the scene where Fudge cross-examines Malik about how he feels during `The Star-Spangled Banner' at a football game. But this whole movie is about a group of people who are trying to figure out what they believe, how they fit in. Malik comes into school and he's basically a knucklehead. What does he learn? All the characters are basically alienated."

The main characters are not the smartest ones, I said. They're all naive. It's the more ideological people who have given their positions more thought. The skinheads. The black militants. The feminists.

Singleton nodded. This was one late afternoon after a Chicago screening of his film, and we had moved across the street to a Mexican restaurant to talk.

The Fishburne character is fascinating, I said. He's scrupulously neutral and constitutionally conservative: He tries to be color-blind, values only excellence, believes in hard work and holds the young hero to the same standards. He kind of balances out the black militant student. Is that what you were thinking of?

"Not exactly. He's kind of conservative, but not militantly conservative. That's the way I wanted Fish to play him. He believes in not making excuses because of racism, you know, or sex and anything else, and every time Malik comes to him with a complaint, he always refutes it, telling him, `Hey, you can't blame your problems on that.' But even he, in the end, has to admit that there's a system that tries to keep things in check, you know. A certain institutional bias that is slanted against kids like Malik. The professor believes that, to be a good teacher, he can't allow himself to come too close to his students; they may have problems, they may be victims to some degree, but he can best help them by being the best teacher he can."

He keeps a distance, I said, smoking his pipe and talking in terms of theory, and yet you can see in his eyes sometimes that he feels more deeply than he lets on.

"It's not his job to love every one of his students; his job is to facilitate them - inspire them to think for themselves. That's why he says, `The prime motivation for going to school is to learn how to think.' It's not a matter of him telling them what to think; they have to come up with their own ideology." Voices of experience

You seem to have this balance in your films. There are the young characters, the angry ones, but then there's always an older, cooler head around: the father in `Boyz.' The Angelou character in `Poetic Justice.' The professor this time. They speak a more old-fashioned language - I mean that in a positive sense. They tell the young people to work and study and write, to count on themselves instead of blaming the system.

"One of the key things about the professor," Singleton said, "is that he's West Indian. West Indians usually have that whole working ethic, you know, that whole angle that if you work hard you'll get what you want. West Indian people are really conservative on the whole. That's just where he's coming from, you know? `Don't blame your problems on anybody else. Try to solve them yourself. There are no excuses. Who's the enemy? One man pushing buttons to control the fate of the earth?' He doesn't think so."

The problem, I said, is that the system can be the enemy even though no individual member of the system may in fact be the enemy.

"Yeah, I know. That's something else that I've started to explore in this film that I want to get into some more. For example, at the beginning of the film, Malik and Kristen get into the same elevator, and she just unconsciously takes a closer grip on her purse. She's not a racist; she's socialized. It's just an instinctual reaction. When a black man gets into an elevator with a white woman, it happens, you know what I'm saying? It's something that people talk about it all the time, but it's something you never see in a motion picture. By the end of the movie, at least they're talking to each other as human beings, despite everything they've gone through. That is a small victory."

Some people are going to be disturbed by the film's portrait of Taryn, the lesbian student. There's a low-key parallel between the way she befriends the freshman girl, who is on the rebound from date-rape, and the way the skinheads go after the outsider freshman. Although Taryn warns the younger girl - "Don't say yes just because you're fascinated" - there's the feeling that, for her, feminism, anti-rape measures and her sexual orientation are all part of the same package.

In the film, Kristen is torn between two loves - a male and a female - and there is a surrealistic passage in which she seems to be romantic with first one and then the other.

"People I've shown it to think I handled it tastefully," Singleton said. "I didn't make it exploitative, you know. It's a natural thing. I wanted to make it so that you almost wanted her to end up with the woman. In the end she still doesn't know. . . ." Problem with love scenes

Then there are the scenes involving Tyra Ferrell, as the first great romance in the life of Malik. Ferrell in real life is Singleton's significant other, and I wondered if it was hard for him to direct her in love scenes with another man (although all of the film's sex scenes are muted and low-key).

"It was hard to shoot that," Singleton said. "It was the most difficult scene for me to shoot. I thought that if I held back, then people would criticize me. But I didn't want to go too far. So. . . ."

He shrugged.

What he wants to do next, he said, is a bigger picture: "With high-profile actors. Not stars. I'd like to have someone like Denzel Washington play a bad guy, you know. You take the people who are the most prissy, clean types and you make them more complex. . . ."

We talked a little about the timing of the movie's release, in January. Singleton said he wanted it to come out at Christmas, as part of the holiday rush. I said I thought the studios had opened too many films at Christmas this year, and good ones were getting lost in the shuffle. We decided the movies, in general, had not been so great last year, and we agreed that the best one we had seen was "Hoop Dreams," the documentary about two Chicago kids who dream of being pro basketball stars.

"Real life is more fascinating than the movies can ever be," he said. "I think maybe that's why older people don't go to the movies: because they've experienced so much of real life."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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