Boyz N The Quad

The first screen-filling image in John Singleton's Higher Learning is the American flag, removing any doubt that the young director of "Boyz N the Hood" is after big game. His fictitious Columbus University is going to be a microcosm for America in all its fractious multicultural diversity. As big metaphors go, the college campus offers ripe possibilities, throwing together unformed souls of every possible class, race and ethnic background. Mix these cultural collisions with the volatility and confusion of kids whose identities are still up for grabs -- like the three freshman protagonists here -- and Singleton comes armed with enough explosive social issues for a half dozen dramas.

Malik (Omar Epps), a runner on a partial athletic scholarship, is a struggling student who feels his worth is measured only by his track performance; Kristen (Kristy Swanson), an Orange County blonde who's date-raped by a frat boy, is awash in sexual ambiguity; and Remy (Michael Rapaport), an isolated Idaho rube, is desperate to fit in anywhere. Each of them is lost and looking for role models. Malik, a chronic complainer, gets little overt sympathy from his West Indian political-science professor (Laurence Fishburne), a stern sage who rejects Malik's ethos of victimization. But another student, Fudge (Ice Cube) -- the unofficial guru of the black students -- senses his intellectual potential. Kristen, reeling from her brutal encounter with the frat boy, drifts into sexual confusion: she's romantically torn between a wise lesbian political activist (Jennifer Connelly) and a sensitive hunk, having sex with both. Remy, the outcast, can only find a place at the extremes: he falls in with the campus skinheads, a loutish gaggle of swastika-waving brutes.

When Singleton unfurls those swastikas (accompanied by some doom-laden Stanley Clarke music) you know there's trouble ahead -- both for the characters and for the movie. For its first hour, "Higher Learning" keeps you absorbed, even when the writing feels didactic: it's accurate about the tribal instincts of students, the way kids band together around music and style and half-formed ideologies. But Singleton doesn't get inside these students the way he did with the homies in "Boyz N the Hood" -- they're representative figures in an earnest allegory about fractured America. And as soon as Singleton lets his plot go the skinhead route -- fistfights, assassinations, gay-bashings, an innocent black victim and vengeance -- "Higher Learning" sells its soul (and its brain) for overwrought melodrama.

As a filmmaker, Singleton's caught in the old form/content bind. The message he thinks he's sending -- that kids need to question all premises, to find their own answers, to "unlearn" the prejudices built into the system -- is at odds with the Hollywood visual vocabulary he practices with slick but unconscious finesse. He wantsto criticize the overemphasis on athletic performance, but films the track scenes with glamorous, Nike-ad brio. (When Malik calls his relay teammates "slaves" after one of these lyric running scenes, it's impossible to know whether we're meant to take him seriously.) He wants to question authority, but his camera angles worship his heroes and demonize his villains in expressionistic shadows. The audience isn't allowed to discover anything on its own: Singleton underlines every big moment, and adds exclamation points. And yet you leave more confused than illuminated -- what do mad skinhead assassins really have to tell us about anything? Do Nazi skinheads go to college?

Watching "Higher Learning" work itself up into a frenzy, you can feel the burden that Singleton's success has placed on him: he feels he has to address so many burning social issues -- and pump up a crowd pleaser -- that he's left himself no room as an artist. There's no spontaneity in his college kids -- he doesn't give his actors much breathing space -- and no buoyancy in the filmmaking. Singleton is too young, and too talented, to trap himself in the robes of a spokesman. Maybe if he unlearns the overcooked language of Hollywood melodrama he'll find his true voice.