Since at least as far back as Plato’s Republic, ideas of utopia have captured the imaginations of innumerable politically-minded artists. H.G. Wells, author of several famous utopian stories, usefully characterized utopianism in a 1939 address as “arising out of discontent” (https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/documents/wells1.htm). Given the considerable “discontent” of black artists at the time, it is quite remarkable – and commendable – that the new black cinema of the 1980s and 1990s eschewed utopianism. In this context, John Singleton is a particularly fascinating filmmaker from this era. In both Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Higher Learning (1995), Singleton uses the sage-like characters played by Laurence Fishburne – insurance salesman Furious Styles in the former and political science professor Maurice Phipps in the latter – to articulate a distinctly non-utopian, practical yet inspiring “pull yourself up by your boot straps” racial politics.
In Boyz n the Hood, there is of course the scene wherein Furious explains gentrification to a captive Compton audience and implores the resident gang members to take responsibility for their actions and not acquiesce to lives of drug dealing and violence. But even more profound are the scenes from Higher Learning in which Professor Phipps discourages Omar Epps’ character Malik Williams, a college freshman on a track scholarship, from indulging in a victim mentality. In the first scene, Professor Phipps explains to Malik that the victim mentality “breeds laziness” and that laziness is what “has kept black people down” in America. Centuries of racial injustice may have been what put black people down, but Professor Phipps wants Malik to see that he does not have to stay down. To this end, in the second scene, Professor Phipps uses a track analogy to get Malik to see that just as he would not refuse to run a race simply because it might be difficult, or because he might be at a disadvantage, so he should not allow racism – interpersonal or systemic – to keep him from the track of life. Instead, in order to succeed, he must take responsibility for his own success and simply run faster.