Stuart Hall—a sociologist, theorist, researcher and writer whose vast influence on the humanities and on left-wing politics in the UK over the last six decades made him an academic and activist icon—passed away on February 10 of this year. Director John Akomfrah’s brilliant new documentary The Stuart Hall Project, completed and scheduled for release well before Hall’s death, has now been transfigured into a majestic requiem.
Director: John Akomfrah
Producers: Paul Gerhardy, Lina Gopaul, David Lawson
Cinematographer: Dewuld Aukema
Editors: Nse Asuquo
Music: Trevor Mathison
Cast: Stuart Hall
Genre: Documentary/ Biography/History
Part of Hall’s genius lay in his unshakable respect for everyday life and culture as a site of politics and power, and The Stuart Hall Project’s honors that wisdom by enacting delicate balancing act between straightforward biography and intellectual history. The film is assembled entirely from Hall’s appearances on BBC television and radio programs over the course of 50 years, and intertwines the events of Hall’s life with his thoughtful insights into the past, present and future of the world around him.
Floating by in a sort of oneiric limbo, the auditory and visual fragments that Akomfrah assembles yield an impressive survey of biographical information. We learn of Hall’s birth and upbringing in Jamaica, his encounters with racism within his own family and in Jamaican and British society, his journey to Oxford and his involvement in founding the New Left Review, and the ever-present feeling of being an “outsider” that he carries with him throughout this journey. But Hall, wielding a nuanced voice and a fearsome intellect, recounts these events within a layered narrative context, conveying an astonishing amount of historical and cultural detail. Throughout the film, he touches brilliantly on the politics of race and colonialism, labor and capital, issues of war, globalization, and nationalism, all refracted through intimate glimpses into his own personal growth.
One of the film’s smartest choices is to soundtrack Hall’s rich, multifaceted exposition with the music of one of his favorite musicians, jazz luminary Miles Davis. In matching the mercurial and epochal changes in Davis’ sound between the ‘40s and the ‘70s with the evolution of Hall’s life and intellect across the same time period, the film implicitly draws lines between the cultural and social transformations of the eras and the music birthed therein. This maneuver reaches its climax when the New Left’s chaotic 1968 apotheosis—and Hall’s erudite dissection of it—coalesces onscreen over the chaotic sounds of Davis’ earthshatteringly inventive double LP Bitches’ Brew.
Born and raised in Ghana by parents engaged in anti-colonial politics, Akomfrah also entered the UK through the academy, studying sociology like Hall. He then veered into cultural production rather than academia, co-founding the Black Audio Film Collective in the 1980s and establishing himself as a filmmaker with a string of experimental and political documentaries. Akomfrah edits The Stuart Hall Project with grace, clarity and discernment, punctuating Hall’s reminiscences with carefully chosen imagery and smart juxtapositions. Throughout, he seems to understand intuitively the risks of crafting a portrait of Hall—himself an astute observer of media and representation—through mediated fragments. The result is the deeply humane and intensely intellectual film that Hall surely deserved.