Someway during John Akomfrah’s homage to the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, Hall laments the “rolling back” of the welfare state, a common enough sentiment nowadays. Only Hall said this in 1958 when the welfare state was in its infancy, a demonstration both of his prescience and presence over the last half a century.
Although by no means a household name, Hall is regarded as one of the foremost intellectuals of the British left, an accolade that was bestowed on him within a few years of his arrival at Oxford University from colonial Jamaica in 1951.
He was co-founder of the New Left Review, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Raphael Samuel and Raymond Williams, and later joined Richard Hoggart’s Contemporary Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. In 1979 he was appointed professor of sociology at the Open University, where he reinforced his reputation as someone who thought outside of the box, continuing to expand the the scope of cultural studies to include race, gender and the media.
At a time when the political discourse in Britain was much more honest and adventurous than it is today, he became a frequent pundit on TV discussion programmes, no doubt valued for his clarity of thought and mellifluous delivery.
“For my generation in the ’70s he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running… a pop icon with brains whose very iconic presence on the most public of platforms suggested all manner of impossible possibilities,” says Akomfrah, an award winning filmmaker who first rose to prominence in 1986 with Handsworth Songs, a documentary about the racial disturbances in 1980s Britain.
Clips of these television appearances between 1955 and 2000 form the thread of The Stuart Hall Project alongside his Open University broadcasts, archive footage, home movies and family snaps, all masterfully woven together in the editing room in the manner of recent big screen documentaries, The Spirit of 45 and London: The Modern Babylon.
With a soundtrack provided by Hall’s musical hero Miles Davis to reflect shifts in mood and tone, we are taken on a dizzying and often moving journey through one man’s life and ideas against the backdrop of the social and political upheavals that have shaped his thinking – and shaped Britain – over the second half of the 20th century.
Suez, Hungary, the murder of Kelso Cochrane, Vietnam and the Cold War have been among the defining moments for him, but every single area he touches on also defines some facet of post-war British life, be it the Notting Hill riots, Thatcherism – a term he helped to coin – or rock and roll. No armchair activist, we see clips of him addressing CND rallies up and down the country in the 1960s.
It is a roller coaster ride, with more political lows than highs. At the end of the film, as the forces of reaction gather around him, Hall says with uncharacteristic weariness, “I feel the world is stranger to me than I have ever felt before.”
That was more than a decade ago. Now 81, he feels much the same way. “I am much more pessimistic at the moment,” he tells me. “There are few prospects of social change in Britain. The liberal left is confused. The Labour party is a shambles and is itself mired in neoliberalism.”
Yes, there were signs of protest against austerity, he acknowledges. “Occupy, UK Uncut, 38 Degrees, the student protests, they’ve all been interesting. The problem is that they don’t come together. There are always possibilities of course, but it It will not be smooth and easy at all. Just look at the Arab Spring.”
One of Hall’s biggest achievements, to persuade government to take the issue of multiculturalism seriously, has turned out to be another disappointment. “A lot of us were working very hard to make it work. If you live in a society where you can learn to live alongside difference then there is a chance it can work. But Cameron came along and said multiculturalism is dead.”
Despite all this, and poor health, Hall sounds as robust as ever. An admirer of John Akomfrah’s work over the years, he thinks the film is “terrific” and is especially excited about its three-screen version that is to be presented as an installation at Tate Britain in the autumn.
He taught film and media studies in the early ’60s and later on his career helped establish the Institute for International Visual Arts in Shoreditch to promote cultural diversity. As such, his collaboration with Akomfrah, a filmmaker attempting to create a distinctive aesthetic for black cinema, was only a matter of time. It is one which Akomfrah says he has been preparing for all his working life, such is the debt he feels he owes Hall, hence the ‘project’ of the film’s title.
First published in West End Extra, August 8 2013