10 June 2013
John Singleton’s Film Higher Learning: A Queer Mode of Inquiry
John Singleton’s 1995 film, Higher Learning illustrates the conflicts of race, gender, class and sexuality of American college students in the 1990’s. He utilizes exaggerated stereotypes of subcultures to emphasize the conflicts that are present on and off the college campus depicted in the film. The dominant conflict of the film is the racial tensions between a group of black college students and a gang of Neo-Nazi skinheads that recruited an alienated white working class student. There are several smaller conflicts which are exasperated and influenced by the ever present racial tensions on the campus. Roderick Fergusion states that “in relation to corporeality, race has rendered the body into a text upon which histories of racial differentiation, exclusion, and violence are inscribed. Analyzed in terms of subjectivity, race helps to locate the ways in which identities are constituted” (Ferguson 2). Singleton’s vision was ahead of his time; he explores the relationship of race to gender, class and sexuality within one landscape and does not treat these issues as separate but instead addresses them as interconnected differences.
In Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz’s introduction to the special issue of Social Text, “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” they argue that queer studies must address the marginalization that has occurred through difference; otherwise, “intersectionality will become positively hazardous to everyone’s health if we choose to adjudicate among these differences rather than to nurture them all at once” (5). Singleton demonstrates in his film, through violent acts, what can occur if interconnected differences are addressed separately or not at all. In one of the earlier scenes in the film a senior black student called Fudge explains to the freshman Malik how students on the campus segregate themselves. Singleton explores the “intersectionaity” of the marginalized groups on campus by exposing how each group has a hand in their own segregation and conflicts that are created by the various forms of exclusion at the university. Later in the same scene, Professor Maurice Phipps approaches Fudge and Malik. Phipps notices that something is troubling Malik and questions him about. Malik expresses that he knows his position and cannot do anything about it. In this scene, Singleton is commenting on white patriarchal dominance at the university and beyond; specifically, that marginalized citizens feel immobilized. Singleton uses his character, Professor Phipps to articulate that marginalized people do have power and the way to it is to realize that you have it. Although Singleton is quoting Frederick Douglas in this scene, he seems to be making allusions to Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. Foucault argues:
The ‘distributions of power’ and the ‘appropriations of knowledge’ never represent only instantaneous slices taken from processes involving, for example, a cumulative reinforcement of the strongest factor, or a reversal of relationship, or again, a simultaneous increase of two terms. Relations of power-knowledge are not static forms of distribution, they are ‘matrices of transformations’. (99)
For Foucault, the oppressed have power even though they are not in power. Singleton uses his character, Professor Phipps, to articulate a similar idea. Power Speech From Higher Learning
The white patriarchal power is most visibly represented by a gang of skin heads. Their method of recruitment is telling young white men that they are losing their power and that they need to do something about maintaining it. Remy who has been become an outcast on campus is easily coaxed into joining the gang. In addition to being a racist, Remy is homophobic. Scott Moss, a friendly guy, notices that Remy is alone and out of courtesy asks Remy if he wants to go to a bar. Remy becomes violent and accuses Scott of being a homosexual. Scott threatens Remy not to put his hands on him and uses derogatory terminology to demonstrate that he is not gay but was just seeing if Remy wanted to hang with him and a few other guys. Both men become violent when the projection of a homosexual encounter and association was made. In this brief scene, Singleton is examining the acceptance of violence towards homosexuals in relation to the threat of male heteronormative roles. As Eve Sedgwick explains, this acceptance of heterosexual male violence towards gay men was often utilized as a defense in cases of gay bashing. Sedgwick states, “judicially, a ‘homosexual panic’ defense for a person (typically a man) accused of antigay violence implies that his responsibility for the crime was diminished by a pathological psychological condition, perhaps brought on by an unwanted sexual advance from the man whom he then attacked”(12). Although, neither men is revealed to be gay and violence does not occur between them, it is the threat of violence and the acknowledgement of the characters that this is acceptable behavior for an unwanted homosexual encounter that is being displayed to the audience.
Singleton also examines interracial dating in his film. Throughout the film viewers are introduced to two minor characters, an attractive white woman with long blond hair and a handsome black man who wears preppy clothing. It is difficult to pinpoint Singleton’s opinion on interracial dating. The couple is ostracized by almost everyone who they encounter. At one point Mailck calls Professor Phipps an Uncle Tom but the real Uncle Tom, for Singleton, seems to be the black man who is dating the white women. The man is viciously beaten by the skin head gang and does not associate with females of his own race. He is not portrayed in a positive way and his beating feels like a punishment. On the other hand, Singleton may just be displaying the violence that is sometimes inflicted upon those in relationships with someone of another race.
Rape is another form of violence that is displayed in the film. Kristin is a white freshman woman from a working class family who hangs out with two rich white men from a fraternity on campus. One of the men, Billy, takes Kristin to his room and when she decides against having sex he rapes her. At first is appears that Billy is going to get away with his actions but then Singleton does something very interesting with this situation. Kristin returns to her dorm and cries in bed. Kristin’s roommate is an intelligent black woman named Monet. When Monet returns to the dorm, Billy calls for Kristin. Monet tells Billy that Kristin is not there but he hears Kristin crying and screams racial obscenities at Monet. At this moment a shift occurs away from sexual violence towards racial violence. Enraged by Billy’s verbal racial attacks, Monet takes Kristin with her and tells Fudge and his friends what has happened. Fudge and his crew go to the white fraternity house and grab Billy. Fudge forces Billy to apologize for his racist remarks but fudge does not acknowledge the fact that Billy raped Kristin nor does Billy apologize to Kristin. Singleton portrays black women as untouchable and incorporates a punishment towards those that attempt to inflict harm on black women. He depicts white women as corruptible and vulnerable. Black Women and Respect Scene
The rape makes Kristin evaluate herself and she begins to associate with, Taryn, a lesbian activist on campus. Through this association, Kristin is empowered both mentally and sexually. Singleton does not have Kristin come out as a lesbian; instead, it is implied that she is bisexual. During the same time period that Kristin is spending time with Taryn she is also hanging out with, Wayne, the stereotypical nice guy. Singleton uses elements of cinematography to create one sex scene for two separate sexual experiences. He cuts between Taryn and Kristin to Kristin and Wayne. It is distracting at first but then the scene flows naturally. Singleton makes Kristin’s sexual encounters feel natural through the beauty of his cuts and camera angles.
Kristin’s new frame of mind enables her to recognize the segregated groups on campus and she decides to hold an event to create unity amongst the student population. This is the climax of the film; Singleton returns to the consequences of not addressing race, gender, class and sexuality as interconnected differences. Remy opens fire on students attending the event and many die. Kristin’s event brought together groups that did not understand the connections that exist between them. There could not be a resolution without an acknowledgment of the connections of differences that both separate and connect the marginalized group. In addition, Remy’s violent eruption represents the resistance of the white male patriarchy to the mobility of the marginalized groups. Remy’s Rampage
Eng, David L., Judith Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz. “What’s Queer about Queer Studies Now?.” Social Text 23.3-4 (2005): 1-18
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
Higher Learning. Dir. John Singleton. Columbia Pictures, 1995. Film.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.
I have never seen Higher Learning, but after reading this post, I will be tracking it down! Especially given the disturbing frequency with which we are now seeing college shootings, it feels like a useful narrative. I am curious about the historical specificity of its depictions of campus activism in the 1990s, and about how much or how little has changed with the shifting in US multiculturalist discourse, especially in the age of Obama when the narrative that racial relations are ‘better now’ seems a disturbingly resilient one in the face of realities. Malik’s depression as he contemplates the effects of learning about oppressive systems may say something about why that might be.
As I think about your connection of the film to Foucault’s discussion of potential mobility within the framework of power, I am also reminded of Roderick Ferguson’s most recent book, The Reorder of Things. I haven’t read it all yet, but I heard him give a talk on it at the last American Studies Association conference. His project is to think about what the emergence of ethnic studies (and to a lesser extent queer and gender studies) in academic contexts has done to shape the relationship between state power and knowledge production. He finds that the sense of empowerment we may have from studying multicultural or marginal discourses can mask the ways that those discourses may be used to shore up power structures, yet he remains committed to the potential radicalism of ethnic studies and queer theory all the same –– attending to the contradictions of it all in a way that Foucault might have advocated.
Your post on the intersection of white and black femininities makes me think of Treasure’s synthesis from this week — you should have a read. 🙂
Thank you for this information: “He finds that the sense of empowerment we may have from studying multicultural or marginal discourses can mask the ways that those discourses may be used to shore up power structures, yet he remains committed to the potential radicalism of ethnic studies and queer theory all the same –– attending to the contradictions of it all in a way that Foucault might have advocated.”
I think Higher Leaner speaks to this as well because there are several groups and activists present in the film and at times I feel like they are being displayed as violent, submissive, disaster causing and/or pointless. However, there are also movements where their presence is a necessity.