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The Stuart Hall Project: Sundance Review

The Stuart Hall Project

The Bottom Line

A lively look at personal identity as seen by Britain’s preeminent cultural historian.

Venue 

Sundance Film Festival, World Documentary Competition 

Director-Screenwriter

John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah's documentary traces how a very bright young Rhodes scholar from colonial Jamaica, became Stuart Hall, public intellectual.

PARK CITY — If one of the roles of documentary film is to educate and stimulate, than director John Akomfrah has done an admirable job with The Stuart Hall Project. Although little known in this country, Hall has been an intellectual rock star in Britain since the ’50s for his work on cultural identity. Blending archival footage, home movies, Hall’s television appearances, and the music of Miles Davis, Akomfrah has created a film bursting with ideas that is also enormously entertaining, in no small measure due to the fact that Hall himself is such an engaging personality. The documentary seems a natural fit for public television in the U.S., and destined for a broader audience overseas.

The film traces how a very bright young Rhodes scholar from colonial Jamaica, became Stuart Hall, public intellectual. His search for identity as a black man in post-war England led him to consider the diverse historical and political factors that determine ones place in society, and that became his life’s work over six decades. Identity, he says, is partially determined by politics; you are how you’re seen. But national and personal identity for him are always changing and evolving, which gives Akomfrah the opportunity to map those changes through major historical events, including the nuclear threat of the ’50s, the cold war, the youth culture of the ’60s, the age of Thatcher, and the multiculturalism of today.

Neither a straight biography nor a history lesson, the film plays like a personal tour of England in the last half century and the forces that shaped it. As one of the founders of the New Left in the U.K., Hall sees the world through a particular lens. But the one overriding question that informs his work is, “What is it like to be a person in today’s world?” And the answer to that is never static. “Another turning point is waiting to happen,” he says.

Hall was a frequent guest on British television and produced numerous cultural investigations himself, such as a trip back to Jamaica to try to decipher the DNA of the place. So Akomfrah has more than ample primary source material to draw on combined with brilliantly researched archival footage. For instance, vintage shots of the mods and the rockers are priceless.

In a sense, the organizing principle of the film is Davis’ music, which has been the soundtrack to Hall’s life. He says that when he first heard Davis’ trumpet playing, it sounded like someone had put his finger on his soul. Akomfrah introduces each new section of the film by identifying a Davis tune that fits the period and plays under the visuals. So “Bitches Brew” plays behind the turmoil of the ’60s. It’s an effective device that both helps reveal time and place and sets the rhythm of the film. It’s dense with ideas, but, appropriately given its subject, the music keeps it moving.

Hall has so much of consequence to say and there is so much to digest, it’s almost impossible to take in everything in one viewing. Yet with all the territory the film covers, there is one notable omission, which is presumably intentional, and that is the role of religion in determining individual and national identity. The subject is not mentioned once. But that’s a small quibble in a fascinating film that manages to distill the currents of history and make them come alive in a very personal way.

Production Companies: Smoking Dog Films

Director: John Akomfrah

Screenwriter: John Akomfrah

Producers: David Lawson, Lina Gopaul

Executive producer: Paul Gerhardt, Tony Ageh, Bill Thompson

Director of photography: Dewald Aukema

Music: Trevor Mathison

Editor: Nse Asuqu

Sales: Wavelength Pictures

No rating, 95 minutes