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The Stuart Hall Project (2013) (John Akomfrah – Smoking Dogs Films)

by Dhanveer Singh Brar
18 Jul 2013 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10] | Review

“With deepest gratitude and respect” – If there is a moment when the pieces of Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project fall into place, it is with this closing note. Gratitude and respect might seem like old fashioned words, pointing to sentiments which are thought to be out of date. They bring to mind images of unashamed acts of deference, of laying prostate (whether physically or intellectually) in front of an elder, but on the flip side there is nothing wrong with paying some dues. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging a debt, when you know how and why that debt has been earned. Gratitude and respect. With deepest gratitude and respect. Akomfrah is reaching for something infinite here, something he knows he owes Hall, but equally that neither he nor Hall would ever have any interest in cutting a deal on. There is a sense in which perhaps the film is clouded by those sentiments. It can be construed as one-eyed in its attempt to mark Hall’s importance to the history of intellectual and political life in this country, but I think such criticism might be missing the point: Hall is the condition of possibility for too many of us to forget what it is we owe him, and there is a danger, in our current moment, that such an act of collective forgetting might already be underway. It is between gratitude and the refusal to turn that gesture into credit, that The Stuart Hall Project goes to work.

Akomfrah does not set this film up as a straight biography, it is not scenes from a life. Neither is it a social history of post-war Britain, or a fully fledged film essay. In some ways it cuts across all three types of film-making, but to follow such a line of argument means missing out on something far more significant. As an act of gratitude, The Stuart Hall Project pays respects by incorporating into its structures the modalities that were central to Hall’s own practice. Therefore the aim of this film, like Hall’s work, is not virtuosity for its own sake. (There is an argument to be made that Hall, if he had pursued a conventional academic career, could have been the British equivalent of say, Michel Foucault, publishing a string of epistemic re-arranging books which secured his intellectual legacy.)  Instead Akomfrah takes on what some would call the mundane, but others would say necessary, dirty, difficult work of being a good teacher. This film teaches like Hall used to teach. What defined Hall’s published and audio-visual work, and comes through strikingly with the archive footage, is the importance of the act of teaching by showing. This is, I think, one of the crux’s of the film – to show and, as a result, teach the viewer how important a figure Hall was.

As such, The Stuart Hall Project is not necessarily designed for a viewer who is aware of the intellectual, social and political moments that Hall moved through and played a role in shaping the interpretations of. Instead, as an instructional device it should be shown to much younger viewers. It should be screened to those who don’t know Hall, precisely because it produces the short of showing and teaching that only Akomfrah is capable of. Therefore, there is a natural aversion to the flattening ticks of documentaries which see themselves as a means to dump information, in favour of dislocating, drifting moods, that might not always be considered the most effective use of the archival material to hand, but again the intention seems to be something more noble – to turn the film into a good teacher.

Akomfrah uses Hall’s confession that from the moment he first heard his trumpet, Miles Davis touched his soul, as a thread to tie the film’s chapters together. To deploy Davis as a tracking device is a neat poetic move. Hall, like Davis, underwent a series of transformations throughout his career, and at each stage both seemed to anticipate and provide an interpretative language (whether musical or analytical) for societies in almost perpetual rupture. Whilst many of the formulations Hall arrived at might seem dated now, it is because he was so successful in making the case for a change in vocabulary to identify emerging social and cultural phenomena. Hall’s gift to us, Akomfrah seems to be saying, is much like Davis’s: orientations towards new structures of feeling.

The following of Hall through Miles Davis is at its strongest in the early chapters of the film. It is in his account of family and social life in Jamaica, arrival at Oxford and the establishment of the New Left Review that you get the impression, via Trevor Mathison’s selection and arrangement of songs, that Davis and Hall were conducting a duet. Whilst not operating as a conventional soundtrack, the range of music from the Birth of the Cool period, through Kind of Blue, and arriving at In A Silent Way uses the seeming detachment, which was in fact a cover for a bitter-sweet rage, running underneath Davis’ muted instrument, to offer a discordant characterisation of Hall’s work.

The discrepant synchronicity that Akomfrah locates between Davis and Hall is not entirely coincidental. Both men shared a unique historical conjuncture. They came to maturity during a period of investment in modern culture as an international creed, born of the optimism of decolonisation and an emerging civil rights movement. Hall and Davis were operating in two cities (London and New York) which represented the most advanced centres of this new era of progress, change and freedom. As such they stood at the apex of artists, thinkers and writers of colour, who were moderns in spirit but not necessarily modernists. Having said that, the Hall-Davis symbiosis does not work with the same amount of success throughout the course of the film, and the absence of his Teo Macero produced masterpiece On the Corner feels a little disappointing. It would have been fascinating to see how Akomfrah and Mathison made use of the Amazonian machine squawks and the enfolding of tabla-skin into a funk domain that shape the album.

Aside from teaching, Hall’s other major practice was the production of critical interventions. His 1989 co-edited collection with Martin Jacques, New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s is the last great example of this, and still serves as a handbook for the current state of things.

The film draws to a close by also taking on this characteristic of intervention. Turning to another confession from Hall, he admits to feeling a man thoroughly out of sync in post-Millenium Britain. This is evidenced in one of his last public appearances on BBC’s Newsnight. The Hall who was at great ease in the television studio of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, is now alienated and disturbed by the dogfight that passes for public debate. The tones of exasperation and exhaustion in Hall’s voice act as staging point for a series of questions: Who was supposed to come after Stuart Hall? Where were the Gramscian organic intellectuals ready to take up his work? Is there such a thing as a black public intellectual in Britain anymore? Is the the university capable of producing such figures? Is British culture any longer interested in sustaining the idea of a black public intellectual?

One of the final shots of  The Stuart Hall Project sees him speaking in hopeful anger on a public platform. He is compelling those in the audience to invest in, to literally fund, Black British youth culture, in all its forms, because as he maintained throughout his career, without it, we have little hope. The scene though gets swallowed up, through Akomfrah’s placement of it, in a kind of weary sadness. It is as if Hall is not addressing the audience in front of him, but instead calling out to us now, asking us to save the collective project that was his life’s work. The problem is that we already know his command was delivered in vain, and we managed to fail the Stuart Hall Project by never doing anything to repurpose it for new times. There is a debt to Hall we need to go to work on again, a debt that we never want to repay, a debt we need to learn how to keep alive, one built on gratitude and respect. A debt that runs deep. The deepest.

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Founder member of the Black Studies Group (London)
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