Film of the week: The Stuart Hall Project

Cultural critic and New Left fountainhead Stuart Hall meets the mood music of Miles Davis and the reflective screen poetry of John Akomfrah in this multifaceted portrait of a thinker and his times.

Ashley Clark
Updated:

from our October 2013 issue

Stuart Hall was kind of a rock star for us,” writes director John Akomfrah in a statement accompanying his latest essay film. “For many of my generation in the 70s… he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. His very iconic presence on this most public of platforms suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities’.”

Accordingly, The Stuart Hall Project is a strongly personal work for the director. Culled from over 100 hours of archival footage featuring Hall, it unfolds simultaneously as a tribute to a heroic figure, a study of the emergence of the New Left and its attendant political ideas, and a summation, in thematic and technical terms, of the key characteristics of Akomfrah’s body of work thus far (intertextuality, archival manipulation, a focus on postcolonial and diasporic discourse in Britain).

The third key creative partner is the late Miles Davis, whose music – a shared passion of Akomfrah and Hall – is used to map a complementary emotional and temporal landscape which encapsulates the film’s moods and themes. The end result is a densely woven tapestry of ideas, which the viewer may need more than one crack at to fully absorb.

In structural terms, The Stuart Hall Project rejects the conventional linearity of standard biographical documentaries (say, Kevin Macdonald’s Marley, 2012) and instead plays out across contrasting temporal planes, reflecting its subject’s suggestion in the film that societies exist in a cyclical “state of permanent revolution”. Though the key domestic and international historical events featured (including, but not limited to, West Indian migration to the UK, the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian Uprising, the birth of youth counterculture, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War), and Hall’s mixed experiences with ‘Britishness’ as a post-war immigrant, are addressed in broadly chronological fashion, they are offset by a constant, diverse stream of Hall’s wide-ranging media appearances and voiceovers. Presumably often taken from radio broadcasts, Hall’s audio contributions are frequently unmoored from concrete time, consequently opening up, for the viewer, a liminal space for reflection rather than the limiting confines of contemporaneous commentary.

Another of the film’s key organising principles falls within the realm of the aural; the use of Davis’s melancholy-suffused music (“When I was 18 or 19,” says Hall early in the film, “Miles Davis put his finger on my soul”). Davis’s music, save for an early blast of 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, is also structured in chronological order, a neat by-product of which is to map the trumpeter’s development as a musician in step with international events. For example, the electronic wigginess of Bitches Brew (1968) seems a perfect tonal match for the year’s political unrest.

Akomfrah and sound designer Trevor Mathison have a feel for the improvisatory nature and unresolved quality of jazz music, which fits in with a particular trend of dissonance in post-war artistic culture (from William Burroughs’s cut-up poetry to John Heartfield’s photomontage), and informs editing patterns. But it’s not all discordance: the film’s centrepiece – a deeply moving, genuinely beautiful image-stream of birth, family, death, travel and Civil Rights-era visuals – is set to the title track from one of Davis’s most radical and divisive albums, In a Silent Way. But, in a neatly ironic touch, the song’s most gentle, pastoral passage is used: the calm before the storm.

Much of the film’s archival content highlights Hall’s skill in crystallising complex ideas into digestible, relatable information for public consumption

Amid the audiovisual bricolage, it is notable just how accessible Hall’s ideas are, given their intellectual weightiness. This is partly down to the seductively allusive manner of the film’s editing, but also the compelling presence of the subject: Hall is gregarious, good-looking and highly charismatic – a pleasure to spend time with. Much of the film’s archival content is culled from official public record (the majority of the footage is from the BBC), and this fact highlights Hall’s eminent skill in crystallising complex ideas into digestible, relatable information for public consumption.

The film’s most moving passages follow him on a trip back to Jamaica in the late 80s to try to decipher the DNA of the Caribbean and confront the colourism that he was subjected to by his own mother (“three shades darker”, he felt like an outcast). Moreover, thanks to Hall’s innate perspicacity and capacity for self-analysis, the film never feels hagiographic.

He is honest about his shortcomings, which include being blindsided by the onset of feminism. Shortly after meeting his wife Catherine, he confesses, “Feminism taught me the difference between a conviction in the head and a change in the way you live.” At another juncture, Hall stresses the importance of a self-reflexive politics (“…which cannot expect automatic support”), and this principle is embedded in the film’s fabric; broadly speaking the film exhibits an undeniably leftist stance but is never dogmatic in tone.

Inasmuch as the film is a celebration of its subject, it can also be read as a multi-stranded, parallel lament – for the passing of the time when a prominent leftwing intellectual enjoyed such a presence on television, and also as an elegy for a life lived. There’s no escaping the knowledge (burnished by the overarching presence of Davis’s minor-key tones) that as the film unfolds, its subject, now 81, is coming closer to death. However, while the final frames convey a strong sense of an ending with regard to Hall’s time in the spotlight, The Stuart Hall Project offers cause for celebration as a successful crystallisation of Akomfrah’s work to date; it is crafted in the style of, and intentionally haunted by, the ghosts of his previous films.

In accordance with its overarching theme of collapsing temporalities, The Stuart Hall Project shares a clear relationship with Akomfrah’s debut Handsworth Songs (1987). An essay film inspired by Hall’s pioneering theoretical model for coding and decoding mass-media materials, it employed collagist documentary devices to challenge dominant media responses to the area’s civil unrest. And in the later film, when Hall observes, “Every new configuration contains masses of the old… Each time it comes it requires a new perspective,” he could be talking about the director’s body of work.

The Stuart Hall Project’s closest relative is 2010’s The Nine Muses, to which it plays like the flipside of the same LP (In a Silent Way, perhaps?). If the earlier film was the definitively elegiac piece for the Windrush generation, the latter represents a more forensic take on a fragment of it. Though equally calm and ruminative, it is more accessible than its predecessor because it utilises one single figure as a conduit for complex themes instead of a fount of diverse, open-to-interpretation classical literary references.

The connections between the films are both cosmetic and thematically deep; both began their lives in different mediums (The Nine Muses as a video installation, Mnemosyne, The Stuart Hall Project as a three-screen video entitled The Unfinished Conversation), and they use the same font for titles and intertitles. Though the use of found footage is largely restricted to Hall (as opposed to the kaleidoscopic range of The Nine Muses), there are still a number of oblique sequences of travel and harsh elemental imagery (wind, rain and snow) as transitional scenes to evoke the spectral emotion of a post-war immigrant’s journey to England.

The key through-line is the reference to Homer’s The Odyssey, which is identified by Hall as his intellectual “way out” from the psychological and spatial difficulties of being a black immigrant in 1952; it is also the key text underpinning The Nine Muses’ core transposition of classical western mythology to the story of post-war immigration. The overall effect is a satisfying sense of continuity and a pleasing momentum that two such challenging, complementary works have been created, distributed and exhibited in such close proximity. (In the intellectually restrictive climate of British cinema, we can’t take this for granted.)

Simultaneously elegiac and light, dense and accessible, The Stuart Hall Project is a singular work with a built-in replay value, and possessed of its own distinct sensibility. There is also the sense that it fits into a broader developing trend within contemporary non-fiction filmmaking which exhibits what we might dub a Janus-inflected ‘recycling aesthetic’: it uses the past in a contemporary way to point forward. Like Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) and Jason Osder’s forthcoming Let the Fire Burn, it generates a considerable emotional force from reconstituting existing material to revelatory storytelling effect.

Ultimately, though, the overriding impression left by The Stuart Hall Project is of a sparkling meeting of minds and creative disciplines orchestrated by one of our most gifted non-fiction filmmakers. Black, British, proudly intellectual and now into his fourth decade of pursuing a restlessly experimental craft: it is perhaps now Akomfrah’s turn to be cast in the role of rock star by an emerging generation of thinkers and critically engaged viewers.

Back to the top