It’s hard to discuss Stuart Hall’s importance to me without embarrassing myself in one of two ways. If I tried to accurately provide a context to how influential he is to me, it would sound mushy and hyperbolic. If I wrote about him with any less reverence, I’d be selling him short. One of Britain’s most important cultural theorists, and more importantly, one of the pioneers in cultural studies, his words have crossed my eyes countless times throughout my life as an academic. A film about his work and his life would have to be cumbersome if it were fit everything in. However, that’s not what is being attempted here.
Director John Akomfrah samples from Hall’s numerous interviews and television appearances. While in America, he was most likely to be seen in a citation for a research proposal, he had some celebrity status in England. This is important because the film’s style ignores that of the conventional informative documentary. There are no planned interviews, no talking heads photographed like portraits trying to contextualize Hall’s life. Instead, the film is centered almost entirely on his voice and his words all effectively recycled by archival materials. The focus is not on Hall’s work in cultural studies (someone interpreted as strictly popular and low culture) but one of the opposing forces that inspired him to fight back.
The Stuart Hall Project is not a good introduction to Hall. The film’s form is closer to that of poem, than of something purely informative and functional. From that perspective, I do acknowledge that this is a film that isn’t transcendent. It doesn’t cut through one’s own knowledge or lack of knowledge about Hall and create something beautiful. If one is to meet Hall through Akomfrah’s film, they will be confused and overwhelmed, perhaps occasionally latching on to his musings via voice over. He does narrate his timeline, from his upbringing in Jamaica to his adult life in England, and the constant questions of identity that such a history poses. Hall’s questions of identity are important enough when one reads him, but they encounter a second, poignant edge when quotes like “I can’t go back to one origin, I have to go back to five” echoes through the empty space in images that Akomfrah has collected from archives. We live in a world where politics and “real life” are acknowledged as separate, but this film provides the fabric that weaves the two together. Hall’s calm and peaceful demeanor speaks of his intellectual and academic standing, but his words express a frustration, even heartbreak.
It would be easy to call Akomfrah’s “work” into question here. The observations made in the film are not his (though, he most likely shares some of Hall’s sentiments) and neither are the images. He hasn’t exactly made a film in the way one thinks of that process conventionally, but he has made something beautiful none the less. At the very least, a film would have to be twenty hours to cram in everything crucial about Stuart Hall’s work. Again, this never seems to be the intention. Akomfrah has, instead, crafted a love letter. It won’t make sense to those who don’t know Hall or even to those who don’t make a certain connection with his words. However, for those of us who do love Hall and who took his passing to heart, here’s a film that alludes to his importance, without feeling too wordy or unwieldy.