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Documentary Review - The Stuart Hall Project (DVD)

An examination of cultural theorist and founder of The New Left Review, Stuart Hall.

Directed by: John Akomfrah
Featuring: Stuart Hall


The Movie:


A documentary about cultural theorist and founder of The New Left Review may sound like a dry academic watch. Under the marvelously spry and allusive direction of John Akomfrah, however, we have a witty, poetic freeform art piece, a work of cinematic jazz counterpointed by the music of Stuart Hall’s beloved Miles Davis.
This is no talking head history of the great man from birth to old age. Akomfrah has instead raided the archives, using a mosaic approach of existing footage and historic events, much like Asif Kapadia’s exemplary Senna. The approach may be the same but the realisation is totally different. By using clips of his appearances on discussion shows and reminisces on his childhood, we get a slow build of both Hall as a man and his upbringing; the significant weight of historic struggles when arriving in Britain from Jamiaca in the 1950s to the present day. We also see the man in full flow on panel discussions and historical television that shows the wit and insightful intelligence of this great man.
The film's ability to contextualise modern cultural theory through the prism of Hall’s experiences is both fascinating and beautifully realised. He is profound and moving when talking about his experiences as a black man in that most English of Institutions, Oxford, knowing that he could never truly be a part of the establishment and feeling neither English or Jamaican but a hybrid of both. Hall has an even handed approach when talking about racism, acknowledging the prejudices and bigotry of his own family whilst acknowledging the racism he himself received as part of a mixed race couple without dwelling on it. The film is masterful at depicting the violent turbulent events of the time through archive footage. There is an inflammatory angry film to be made about race politics in the post war era but Akomfrah’s approach is in tune with his subjects, never ignoring the bigotry and unjustness but holding it to the light of intellectual debate and reason. Never mind the subject's race or ethnicity, what is shocking is the intelligence on display in the archive footage of TV debate shows. It is interesting to compare with the poverty of discourse that blights modern TV discussion.
The film may focus on one man but it has a large scope, covering the changes that occurred post war such as the Suez Canal Crisis, the Paris riots of 68, the civil rights movement, the birth of CND and the Women's Liberation Movement, and foremost the creation of The New Left Review. One of the fascinating things about this archive footage is how depressingly little has changed. In one piece Hall is lamenting the erosion of the welfare state in the 1950s and in a piece from the 1990s about the ongoing Civil War in then Yugoslavia, a panel is discussing the fear of immigrants flooding the country, plus ca change.
This is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in cultural history, politics or anyone who wants to see a thoroughly excellent documentary about a quite brilliant man.
8/10
Extras:

On the disc you get a 13 minute Q&A session with the director and Baroness Lola Young at the BFI Southbank that is informative and eloquent if oh so slightly fawning.
A 48 minute audio only discussion between John Akomfrah, Stuart Hall and Parminder Nir.
There is also a 20 minute interview from 1992 by Young Soul Rebels director Isaac Julien, which was part of the Black and White in Colour season on the BBC. 
A fascinating talk about the need for more black representation and control in all aspects of the media that still feels depressingly contemporary. 
Add a trailer and a booklet reprinting an article from Ashley Clark in Sight & Sound as well as a new piece from writer Mark Fisher and you have a comprehensive collection of extras that contextualise the film and highlight the directors other work.
7/10


Jason Abbey