Feature Film: The Stuart Hall Project
A revealing documentary about the life of sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, some of the major incidents of the second half of the twentieth century, and his impressions of this politically chaotic time
Ghanian-born, British filmmaker John Akomfrah has dedicated his 27-year career in film to questions pertaining to the identities, rights and the alienation of immigrants, particularly those living in post-colonial Britain. In The Stuart Hall Project he continues his exploration of these issues, with a revealing documentary about the sociologist Stuart Hall. It is a scholarly piece of work, bringing together the life of Stuart Hall, some of the major incidents of the second half of the twentieth century, and his impressions of this politically chaotic time. Akomfrah describes Stuart Hall as “a kind of rock star, a pop icon with brains” – No doubt, Hall, through his involvement in the activist New Left movement and his impact on cultural studies as a theorist and academic, has made a significant contribution to cultural and public life in Britain.
The film combines archive footage of Stuart Hall and various political incidents of the latter half of the twentieth century, ranging from footage of Vietnam, the arrival of the African diaspora to Britain, Jamaica during colonial rule, Cuba, the Cold War, to youth culture and riots across Europe in the 1960s – It is not an arbitrary selection of world events but an indication of how wide-ranging Stuart Hall’s interests and his impact extended. Throughout the film Hall speaks articulately on race and class, and particularly on how physical identifiers affect people’s prejudice towards one another. And thanks to the choice of the filmmaker to cobble this together with the personal life of Hall, we see how the earliest signs of prejudice towards him, as a Jamaican boy “three shades darker” than his family, or as a black student of Oxford in the 1950s, shaped his views throughout his political and academic career.
We hear first-hand depictions of the problems of assimilation in Britain, and how the many Afro-Caribbean and Asian populations felt and were depicted as outsiders within. This contrasts starkly with Hall’s imagining of one’s culture and identity as ever changing and in flux, symptomatic of the globalised world, and yet by the end of the film it is evident from Hall’s language that he regrets that his idealistic vision for a tolerant society has not been realised.
It is interesting that Akomfrah has chosen to make the film at this time, when immigration policy has reentered British politics and public dialogue, reflecting quite closely some of the film’s coverage of the views and support of Enoch Powell, which Hall labels as “a significant minority”. A more recent sound bite has Hall describe this world as “alien” to him as it has ever been – I wonder what he thinks now?
The style of the documentary, while innovative, lacks a real narrative of the life of Stuart Hall. The shift of subject matter roughly follows the timeline of his life but lacks the coherence to give a real indication of the man – I found myself craving either a simple biography or a substantial inquiry into the theoretical implications of his work, the film is neither. That said, it offers an opportunity to delve into the life and work of a man who has influenced the British left so much and yet isn’t a household name to many. This and the excellent carefully chosen score from Miles Davis makes the film well worth a watch.