Who is Stuart Hall? Aside from being a famous cultural theorist I read at university, apparently he’s also a celebrated broadcaster and leftist commentator who’s been called one of the 20th century’s most influential intellectuals. I hope I’m not the only one amazed to hear the story behind all those textbooks, to be shocked that such an eminent professor had a pivotal role in the most exciting periods of post-war British history.
Fascinating though it is, director John Akomfrah thankfully sidesteps the trappings of conventional biographical documentaries and approaches his subject with thrilling originality. The Stuart Hall Project is unique in using Hall’s archived media appearances instead of conducting new interviews, and remixing these and other old footage to the music of Miles Davis. Through Hall’s interviews and broadcasts throughout the 70s and 80s, we hear about his formative years in colonial Jamaica, his escape from the Caribbean’s oppressive hierarchies to study at Oxford University, and track his rise to fame as leftist spokesperson and broadcaster.
Akomfrah is right to have focused on Hall’s politics and activism, showing the roots and context of his academic theories while avoiding a detailed and potentially tiresome analysis. Rather than devoting swathes of the film to Hall’s thinking, Akomfrah displays exquisite creativity by representing his theories in the very structure of the film itself. As Stuart Hall says: “Every new configuration contains masses of the old” – and it’s within the very act of remixing archived material into a new documentary that Akomfrah encapsulates Hall’s ideas of cultural reinvention and revolution through decoding and recoding.
Yet, the genius of this film is also its greatest problem. Since we only see and hear cuttings from Stuart Hall’s public appearances, his private life remains enticingly hidden from view. Yes, Hall is an eminent and respected theorist; yes, he was a righteous and courageous activist. But where’s the dirt? Where are the neuroses and anxieties that all humans suffer from, let alone those living in the public eye?
It’s unfair to judge this film against the conventional standards we have for biography docs. This is The Stuart Hall Project, not The Stuart Hall Story, and for me it’s more of an experiment in filmically realising Hall’s ideas than a comprehensive account of his life. In this regard it’s a resounding success, and Akomfrah’s greatest achievement lies in his balancing of innovating with the demands of good storytelling; accomplishing formal originality whilst painting a nuanced and brilliantly contextualized portrait. An excellent film, no doubt it will bring Hall’s politics and theories back to their deserved place at the forefront of popular culture.
The Stuart Hall Project will be screening at various London cinemas until 26 September, for specific dates and times (also for other UK locations) please check on the BFI website.