Reel Gems | Higher Learning

by Tim Gordon

Twenty-eight years ago, John Singleton released his third film, the college drama, Higher Learning.

Written and directed by Singleton and starring an ensemble cast, the film focuses on the changing lives of three incoming freshmen at the fictional Columbus University: Malik Williams (Omar Epps), a track star who struggles with academics; Kristen Connor (Kristy Swanson), a shy and naive girl; and Remy (Michael Rapaport), a lonely and confused man seemingly out of place in his new environment.

The film is filled with several fascinating “what if” casting examples. While model Tyra Banks made her film debut in the film, there were several others who didn’t make the cut. Originally, Singleton wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to play Remy, while Michael Rapaport was originally going to play Scott Moss. DiCaprio was cast but was unable to be in this movie because of a scheduling conflict with The Quick and the Dead.

Tupac Shakur was originally set to play the role of Malik Williams, but he was jailed shortly after getting the part. Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman was originally considered for the role of Professor Maurice Phipps, but he wanted the plot to revolve around the professor and the student, but Singleton wasn’t interested in changing it, so Hoffman wasn’t cast.

Finally, Singleton wanted Sidney Poitier to play Professor Maurice Phipps, but he was not available. Singleton’s second choice was Samuel L. Jackson. The studio preferred Fishburne, who had worked successfully with Singleton in Boyz n the Hood. For his work, Fishburne won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture.