A study of the great British cultural theorist, John Akomfrah’s bio-doc The Stuart Hall Project is a patchwork of black identity exposing the empire state of mind.
In A Silent Way by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
It could have been Germaine Greer or Peter Tatchell, but for John Akomfrah’s analysis of the post-war British identity, The Stuart Hall Project is a very black vision. Stuart Hall, of course, was one of the earliest black faces on British television (albeit as an English, African and Portuguese Jew) and as such a guiding light for self-confessed bookworm John Akomfrah. But Hall was also a preeminent left thinker, a spokesman for CND and the New Left as well as a cultural theorist and onscreen lecturer for The Open University. Positioned somewhere between the melancholic, mellifluous beauty of The Nine Muses and Akomfrah’s made-for-TV documentary Martin Luther King and the March on Washington, The Stuart Hall Project is a ruminative and thought-provoking composition on black empowerment and emerging, ever-changing identities.
Pieced together almost entirely out of archive footage, home video, personal photos and radio recordings, The Stuart Hall Project follows the cultural theorist’s journey as the gifted student emigrates from Jamaica to Britain to study at Oxford University. A contributor to the Universities And Left Review, Hall became a guiding force on the New Left magazine before becoming the spokesman for left-leaning intellectuals on peace marches against the H Bomb and talking at Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament gatherings. He married and had children, but inspired by the post-colonial revolutions across the globe and the new immigrants’ desire for a form of socialism between imperialist capitalism and state communism, Hall developed theories of identity as an ongoing conversation between personality and politics while a professor at the University of Birmingham before going on to share his ideas with a wider audience through the Open University.
The story of Stuart Hall’s life though doesn’t really do justice to John Akomfrah’s bio-doc, a mellow collage of Miles Davis melodies, radio-essays of Hall’s cultural theories and personal photographs from his life. (Words and images blend together so fluidly, The Stuart Hall Project at times seems to turn words into music and pictures into pretty reflections.) But Hall’s thoughts do, nevertheless break through the film’s veneer – such as the permanent conversation between identity and culture or the plurality of modern identity no longer defined by a single birthplace. Set to the jazz musician’s Filles de Kilimanjaro or A Night In Tunisia, Hall’s theories of a new mass society to replace the old emerge, just as one sequence devours the next – as close-up images of an LP turntable turn from blue to the yellow of a setting sun. And as each of Hall’s life stages is interrupted by a red intertitle, marking the next epistemological chapter.
But beyond Hall’s life and learnings, The Stuart Hall Project also offers an understanding of post-war Britain, both in terms of leftist thinking and black emancipation. The New Left carves out a niche in support of the former colonies finding their feet, in an epoch of immigrants from the Empire returning to the realm just at a time when the motherland was glad to have finally washed its hands of them. Inspired by the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Revolution, socialist thinkers in the UK bemoan the state’s lack of moral leadership, culminating in Thatcher’s conversation-stopping death blow to society. Perhaps most interesting however is the emergence of black politics, from the first mass movement following the murder of Kelso Cochrane in Notting Hill to the civil rights movement and its subsequent determination not to conform and assimilate. But citing revolutions at the end of the Sixties, from Vietnam’s immolations to the riots on Parisian boulevards, race for Hall is just the framework, the lens for a deep cultural shift occurring across the globe.
The world has changed and will never be the same again. And whether black, female or gay, it’s a youthful revolution continuously aspiring to change the identity of the state – the boys’ club at the heart of the Establishment. And like the marriages renegotiated in Britain up and down the country, it’s an illustration of intellectual ideas which change the way we live. An engrossing and stimulating meditation on personal, cultural and national identity, The Stuart Hall Project is a study of life through a lens. John Akomfrah’s documentary, with its stream of consciousness of cultural theory, intertitles, biography and jazz melodies, laps at the tide of our consciousness rather than immersing us fully in the sea change. But like the flood of photographs that best represent Stuart Hall’s pluralist character, identity is a revolution constantly redefined. And Akomfrah’s bio-doc is momentous. In a silent way.
The Stuart Hall Project is released on 6th September 2013 in the UK