In his eloquent Reith Lectures of 1993, Edward Said argued that intellectual work is also political, that as an intellectual one had a “special duty” to make sure that the “authorised powers of one’s own society” are “accountable”. The public intellectual is both inside and outside society, knowing his society intimately but also seeing it with the eyes of the cosmopolitan or the exilic; his/her life’s tasks indicate a calling but one that is imagined, felt and embodied personally. In this day and age, when the academy is less an ivory tower than a large financial corporation or business, John Akomfrah’s visually lyrical examination of the public life and values of the influential social commentator, activist and academic, Stuart Hall, is an uplifting and salutary reminder of the purpose of intellectual work.
In 1968, Hall was appointed director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies; he then moved to Open University in 1979; his clear-sighted engagement with French (post)structuralist theory made dense philosophy astonishingly revelatory and relevant to examining the myriad ways we live and the cultures we inhabit. Akomfrah’s film is a meditation on Hall’s life and on the role of the public intellectual, deftly finding the connections between personal history and larger historical movements. Hall’s memory of, and commentary on, nodal points in postwar global history – Suez, Vietnam, Cuba, the Welfare State, the Hungarian Revolution – are delivered over images of these same events culled from the archive. His commentaries undertaken as teaching texts for the Open University become prescient observations on his own life, ambitions and old age. Hall’s migration to Britain was, at once, a personal journey and a historical and generational one: Caribbean migrants also came to seek a better future in the “mother country”. Arriving from a still colonised Jamaica to read English as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford made Hall all too aware of tensions and contradictions: the colour and class hierarchy that was the legacy of plantation slavery and British colonialism; postwar racial prejudice; education as culture and as the driver for social mobility; the hybrid and plural cultural inheritance of Caribbean cultures; the restlessness and longing for the “modern” (whatever forms they take) that drove these emigrants outwards. If this confluence of waters sensitized Hall to how individuals are caught up in history and politics, being both insider and outsider fostered a personal reflexivity. Hall’s relentless life-long engagement with questions of social justice, imagined in dreams of a progressive society in theory and praxis, are all to be found in the film: the founding and editing of New Left Review, the CND campaigns, the protest marches against the far right galvanised by Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, the commitment to education.
The Stuart Hall Project is reminiscent of an earlier collaboration between the two on Akomfrah’s first film, Handsworth Songs, a documentary that performed similar raids on the archive to make sense of riots and civil disobedience of the 1980s. Much like Songs, The Stuart Hall Project shares a self-reflexive aesthetic, restlessly combing through archival photographs and films to better understand and depict who we are, or what we might become. Images recur and, in their different iterations, destabilize their normal sets of meanings. Soil over farmlands is blown and stirred by the wind, flocks of birds wing their flight over the horizon, suggesting perhaps that those pastoral landscapes signify not autochthonous organic settlements so beloved of the far right, but movement. The ghosts of other stories haunt the present; London’s twenty first century city skyscrapers are shot using colour filters that render them in the sepia tones of an historical past. All the while, images of birds, planes, trains, cars and ships indicate a restless modern global mobility of which the Windrush migration is but one expression.
Set to Miles Davis’ jazz, another expression of modernity, The Stuart Hall Project is a moving poetic documentary of one singular individual. But it is also much more than that.