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The Stuart Hall Project: some thoughts

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Born in Jamaica, Stuart Hall went to England in 1951 to attend Oxford University. He is one of England’s top public intellectuals, a champion of the concept of multiculturalism, and is considered the founding father of cultural studies. The Stuart Hall Project (2013) is a documentary film about Hall, directed by the accomplished British filmmaker John Akomfrah. The film will screen at the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff) as part of a tribute to Akomfrah, who will attend the Festival. The following is an appreciation of the film by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, a US-based academic and critic, and ttff/13 writer-at-large.

“Stuart Hall,” says an anonymous early voice in John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project, “may be Britain’s most important left-wing intellectual since the war.” Certainly, a good case can be made: as a leading founder of the New Left Review, and a diligent, eloquent critic of Margaret Thatcher’s lasting assault on Britain’s working classes, Hall carried the old Marxian torch, for esteemed forebears like EP Thompson, with diligent grace. But as Hall’s legion of admirers know—and as this luminous film shows—the contributions of this great humanist, who left Jamaica to study at Oxford in 1951, and has called England home since, have gone far beyond mere torch-carrying for his mentors’ leftism.

Hall, as a brown-skinned immigrant from the old Empire’s fringe, not only foresaw the extent to which the question of how our polyglot societies contended with difference—racial, sexual, ethnic, religious—would define his era’s political life. He evolved a new field—“cultural studies”—based in the principal that understanding how, in building our core sensibilities of self and nation, we draw on images and stories from the records and films we love, and that this is more than an important task—it is through such media that we work out who we are. More than an easy-chair intellectual, Hall also lent his rare gifts as a communicator, during a fifty-year career as a broadcaster, to helping fill the spaces, in the media, that his ideas subtly pulled apart.

Stuart Hall, in other words, is no small figure—nor simple subject. Which is part of why Akomfrah’s timely portrait, at once refractive and loving, feels like such a gift. Stitched together from Hall’s personal archive—and scored with the piercing-but-fragile tones of the Miles Davis records that “put a finger on my soul,” Hall tells us “and…never went away”—here is a film whose arc, and tone, at once depicts and evokes its subject’s insights. See it. And spare a moment, when you do, to consider what’s unspoken here: that its maker’s own distinguished career owes its thrust, if not its very existence, to the larger “project” that Stuart Hall, in helping make space for the John Akomfrahs of the world to make films like this, has done as much to serve, for as long, as anyone alive.

Screenings of The Stuart Hall Project:
Saturday 21 September, 3.00pm, Little Carib Theatre, Woodbrook
Saturday 28 September, 6.00pm, MovieTowne PoS; Q&A with the director
Monday 30 September, 6.00pm, UWI Film Programme building, 12 Carmody Road, St Augustine; Q&A with the director

Date: Sat 14 Sep, 2013
Category: ttff news and features

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