Stuart Hall, the Jamaican academic, cultural theorist and sociologist who lived and worked in the UK, died earlier this month, February 10, after years battling health problems, including a recent kidney failure, which required a transplant, forcing him to retire from public life.
A year before his death, a feature documentary by British/Ghanaian filmmaker John Akomfrah, titled The Stuart Hall Project, premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and continues to travel the film festival/film screening series circuit.
The documentary interweaves 70 years of Stuart Hall’s film, radio and television appearances, and material from his private archive, to document a memorable life and construct a portrait of Britain’s foremost radical intellectual. Akomfrah condensed 8000 hours of footage down to 95 minutes, which took him over 3 1/2 years, resulting in the feature documentary.
It would be unfair to call The Stuart Hall Project a simple documentary. The film, directed by John Akomfrah, is a visual and sonic excursion into the life and philosophies of the Jamaican-born intellectual, a finely crafted collage of memory, distilling hundreds of hours of archival footage of Hall, and exploring not only his life story but the story of the 20th century, in many ways intertwined with his own.
In the the 1960s, Hall came to prominence as an important thinker in the UK, fearlessly sharing his ideas on race, class, and the social structure as it related to the black people of Britain and around the world. Hall was interested in breaking down the structures of society, power, and political institutions in relation to how they impacted and indeed were tied to the plight of the black man.
Oxford educated and a professor at the Open University, Hall was one of the leading contributors to the field of cultural studies, and one of the most influential voices of the new post-war Left.
The project itself is a highly dense, deeply intricate endeavor. Akomfrah weaves together stock footage, family photos, interviews, television clips, and the music of Miles Davis, of which Hall has been a lifetime listener.
The many parts help to map out a story that chronicles Hall’s career in tandem with the changing events in Great Britain and the world at large including the Suez crisis, youth counterculture and the Vietnam War, West Indian migration to the UK, and the advent of feminist theory.
It may all sound very academic, but the film is clearly a very personal venture for Akomfrah, who has said that the project is one he feels he has “been preparing for a very long time… possibly all my working life.” His respect and admiration for his subject manifests itself in the way Hall is essentially allowed to tell his own story, narrating the documentary through archived audio interviews.
Some of the most moving and fascinating moments in the film come as Hall describes life in Kingston, Jamaica, being “three shades darker” than his family, and therefore an outcast – a victim of colorism and colonization.
There’s a truly cinematic quality to the imagery used, complemented beautifully by Hall’s running narration, as well as the music of Miles Davis, of which Hall has been a lifetime listener. The incredibly rich visual landscape of the film is engaging, if a bit overwhelming due to the sheer expanse of time and information being presented.
The Stuart Hall Project is not a history lesson, nor a biography in the traditional sense. It’s an abstract approach to storytelling, an attempt at connection with the past, and a reverent celebration of a profound and inspirational black leader.