John Akomfrah’s documentary about leading cultural theorist Stuart Hall offers a vivid portrait of the Jamaican-born academic, who was at the centre of the New Left movement. Exploring this integral figure, The Stuart Hall Project (2013) dexterously employs the use of archive footage, reminding us of the man’s contribution to the shaping of modern British society. Today, Hall’s prominence has diminished, even if his theories haven’t. For those of us who aren’t old enough to remember, it’s almost a revelation to learn that he once was a frequent figure on our television screens, discussing issues of gender, race and identity.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Hall was more commonly seen on the high-brow shows. This being the case, Akomfrah’s considered documentary reminds those who lived through the same era, as well as introducing a new generation to this enigmatic man and his impact in what is undeniably a fitting, although perhaps a touch too reverential, tribute. Hall, along with fellow intellectuals Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, founded the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. At the forefront of British Cultural Studies, Hall’s work cut to the quick of the politics of institutional power and how it is manipulated to control the public.
We are afforded the opportunity to delve back into Hall’s relatively privileged upbringing in the Caribbean through family photos and personal accounts from himself, friends and relatives. This personal touch adds heart to a film that sometimes spreads itself a little too thin in its efforts to cover not just Hall, but also his ideas and the shifting cultural landscape of Britain. The historical context that is engaged with is surprisingly extensive for a documentary so expansive. We learn of the impact of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement (amongst others) on Hall’s theories. Akomfrah avoids broad strokes, and densely packs in a great deal and also opts for an unconventional structure.
The idea of biography is played with throughout (the linear goes largely out the window) and instead sees the man in the widest possible context – a bold, rewarding move. It’s sometimes as if Akomfrah has opted to hone the multiple subjects into a singular vision as seen from Hall’s perspective, and the utilisation of the music of Miles Davis is a perfect touch, enhancing the mood of the overall piece. The Stuart Hall Project is a brave piece of filmmaking, taking on the challenging task of encapsulating not just a great thinker, but also the flux of the social landscape in the latter 20th century; and for that it deserves great commendation.