If one of the roles of documentary film is to educate and stimulate, than director John Akomfrah has done an admirable job with The Stuart Hall Project. Although little known in this country, Hall has been an intellectual rock star in Britain since the ’50s for his work on cultural identity. Blending archival footage, home movies, Hall’s television appearances, and the music of Miles Davis, Akomfrah has created a film bursting with ideas that is also enormously entertaining, in no small measure due to the fact that Hall himself is such an engaging personality. The documentary seems a natural fit for public television in the U.S., and destined for a broader audience overseas.
The film traces how a very bright young Rhodes scholar from colonial Jamaica, became Stuart Hall, public intellectual. His search for identity as a black man in post-war England led him to consider the diverse historical and political factors that determine ones place in society, and that became his life’s work over six decades. Identity, he says, is partially determined by politics; you are how you’re seen. But national and personal identity for him are always changing and evolving, which gives Akomfrah the opportunity to map those changes through major historical events, including the nuclear threat of the ’50s, the cold war, the youth culture of the ’60s, the age of Thatcher, and the multiculturalism of today.
Neither a straight biography nor a history lesson, the film plays like a personal tour of England in the last half century and the forces that shaped it. As one of the founders of the New Left in the U.K., Hall sees the world through a particular lens. But the one overriding question that informs his work is, “What is it like to be a person in today’s world?” And the answer to that is never static. “Another turning point is waiting to happen,” he says.
Hall was a frequent guest on British television and produced numerous cultural investigations himself, such as a trip back to Jamaica to try to decipher the DNA of the place. So Akomfrah has more than ample primary source material to draw on combined with brilliantly researched archival footage. For instance, vintage shots of the mods and the rockers are priceless.
Continue reading in The Hollywood Reporter