From its opening declarations, John Akomfrah’s documentary on Stuart Hall, The Stuart Hall Project (2013) explicitly acknowledges that it is going to be condensing fifty years of complex history and ideology into its relatively short running time. Akomfrah achieves this in an unusual but extraordinary way by linking the ideas and history of the public intellectual with his passion for the music of Miles Davis. Within this one creative choice, Akomfrah demonstrates that his creative take will not only be unconventional but one that will directly reflect the maverick stance of its subject matter. The film is therefore the cinematic equivalent of a well curated gallery experience.
Stuart Hall’s fifty years of broadcasting on cultural studies are expertly curated into chronological order, creating a time-line of individually titled chapters that parallel the musical evolution of Davis as well as the political climates of the times. This exploration starts at Hall’s roots in a Jamaican-town, using fascinating footage of his return to his parent’s house and their quite alarming views on immigration in England. Hall’s theories, without greater context could come across as academically heavy but, within the context of a simple, visual representation, Akomfrah’s deft choice of footage shows Hall to be an excellent communicator making even his most complex cultural theories seem quintessentially simple.
What Hall’s comments on the gradually evolving post-war society show is that the post-colonialist society is always going to be in some state of flux, if only due to nostalgia, the media and social amnesia continuing to set up barriers between people and communities. This becomes all the more prevalent in Hall’s arguments as the initial post-war shift in society addresses the issues of race in the 1960s, the 1968 protests and eventually the oncoming neo-liberal storm cloud of Thatcherism.
More interesting though than these oft analysed events and eras is the inclusion, by both Akomfrah and Hall, of more unknown, less publicised social events and changes. Alongside the student protests of Paris, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Vietnam war, sit the rebellions of Chilli in 1973, the various strands of the Eastern Bloc opposing the Goliath of Soviet Russia and the Suez crisis. This could of course make for huge generalisations of Hall’s theories (which very clearly expanded and specialised over time) but Akomfrah is careful not to become blinded by the defining events of the previous years; he instead, like Hall, focuses on the dramatic fallout of these events and, most importantly, how these had a powerful, sociological effect on the unaddressed masses.
Of course, with a film such as The Stuart Hall Project, the simple pleasure of satisfied curiosity that arises from viewing archive footage is a strong draw. From showing publications from his earliest magazine writing at Oxford, firstly for the Universities and Left Review and later the New Left Review (which rather pleasingly shows his name alongside the likes of Ralph Milliband) to frankly astounding earlier editions of programs such as Newsnight, Hall’s catalogue of public appearances is a visual Pandora’s box of different film types and styles almost like the sort of political collage that Richard Hamilton would produce if using moving footage.
Out of all the issues that Hall covers, it comes as no surprise that his deft analysis of the British attitude towards race is where he is shown to be at his strongest. While relating his first experience at Oxford University in the 1950s, Akomfrah skilfully fills Hall’s contemplation when answering a question about the topic through a visual cacophony that no doubt reflects the mental images racing through Hall’s mind at that moment. His assessment at various points over the last 50 years, especially the early 1970s, make a stark, almost depressing comment on today. It takes very little stretching of the imagination to transplant the opinions and media tactics of Powell and the right of that era with the modern day equivalent of the immigration scare-mongering of The Daily Mail and the like. Race, however, isn’t the only issue that Hall is shown to be completely engaged upon.
His recollections of his introduction and embracement of feminism through his wife are stunningly retold, almost as if Hall is acknowledging some flaw in the left up to that point, incorporating it within the ideologies and then progressing forward with them alongside. The same goes for his assessment of Thatcherism which covers all of those strands of society violently forced to the bottom of the various ladders, not simply those their because of racial prejudice. In this sense, Hall is a defining figure in showing how neo-liberalism functions explicitly through dividing people (through various methods) in order to subjugate and shut down the voice of whole swaths of the population that do not fit in the moulded existence as a simple individual, dependent on no-one.
Perhaps this is why, The Stuart Hall Project is so profoundly moving but also ultimately optimistic. While it highlights many, many issues that are still sadly prevalent within our society today, it also shows how the passage of time can overcome them, meaning that, while we are in state of flux, seemingly drenched in war, hatred of the unlike and chaos, it is still possible to see past the historical amnesia and move forward towards societal equality even if it seems an impossibility at the time.
- The Stuart Hall Project Q&A (2013): John Akomfrah and Baroness Young in conversation at BFI Southbank
- John Akomfrah and Stuart Hall Q&A with Parminder Vir (2013): audio recording from the ICA screening of The Stuart Hall Project
- Black and White in Colour Rushes (1992): interview with John Akomfrah recorded for Isaac Julien’s Television, Memory, Race, from the BBC’s ‘Black and White in Colour’ season
- Original trailer
- Optional 5.1 surround soundtrack
- Illustrated booklet including a newly commissioned essay by Mark Fisher
The Stuart Hall Project is released on the 20/01/2014