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Rethinking Questions of Politics, Culture and Identity

 

By Isaiah M. Wooden | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

Saturday, September 21, 2013.


When an adolescent Stuart Hall first encountered modern jazz as a student in colonial Jamaica, he heard in it the sounds of revolution. Jazz, particularly the various musical moods of legendary trumpeter and composer Miles Davis, activated in Hall a desire to think life beyond the middle-class, Colored, colonial existence so deeply prized by his family, especially his mother: “I felt this kind of opening in the world…I knew that it was a world from the margins; it opened up the possibility of really experiencing modern life to the fuller. It formed in me the aspiration to go and get it, wherever it was.” Embedded in the musical genre’s refusal of convention and its embrace of improvisation, Hall discovered guideposts for reframing and rethinking larger questions of politics, culture, identity and their discontinuities. Hall would make rigorous engagements with such questions his life’s work.

The Stuart Hall Project, documentarian John Akomfrah’s deeply affecting cinematic essay on Hall, traces the evolutions of that life’s work. And, appropriately, Akomfrah scores the film with the sounds of revolution: the jazz of Miles Davis.

The Stuart Hall Project offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of Hall as a vocal leader of Britain’s New Left, architect of Cultural Studies, and influential post-war theorist and public intellectual. Assembling an eclectic mix of archival materials, including television interviews, home movies and family photos, the film also provides glimpses of Hall as a son, brother, husband and father. Akomfrah, eschewing linearity, gives thoughtful attention to both the extraordinary and the everyday in the film. He places footage of catalytic international events--the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, various movements against colonial rule, the Vietnam War, among many others—in conversation with images of Hall on the beach with his young family and recordings of him at the Partisan, the Oxford coffee shop that Hall cofounded with several of his Universities and Left Review comrades, for example.

These shuttles back and forth across time and space, which Hall often narrates in voiceover, are not meant to supply a totalized view of the shifts in Hall’s intellectual, political, and personal commitments. Instead, they document the ways those affinities often remained in process and, importantly, serve to example Hall’s own assertion that “identity is always constructed in a conversation between who we are and the political ideologies out there.” Hall began developing an understanding of this conception of identity at a very early age.

Raised in what he describes as “the most exquisitely differentiated class and color system in the world,” Hall’s dark skin—he was three shades darker than his family—was a source of tremendous consternation for his mother, a woman deeply attached to the privileges afforded to lightness and whiteness. “My childhood was the experience of passing through a negative set of definitions. My parents patrolled who I could and couldn’t bring home. They had to be the right class, the right color, have the right education. They had to have the right background, the right name,” Hall recounts. Attending Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship was the apotheosis of everything that his mother had wanted for Hall. Of course, it was at Oxford that Hall came to understand fully the impossibility of his mother’s ambition to become “English.” It was also at Oxford that Hall first began to interrogate seriously the questions that would later preoccupy him and many of his New Left interlocutors.

The Stuart Hall Project is as much a commemoration of the emergence and evolution of the New Left as it is a tribute to one of its most formidable thinkers. Akomfrah recovers from the archive audio and video clips, including the footage of Hall at the Partisan, that capture the spirit of radical debate that marked Hall’s early days as a steward of the New Left’s intellectual projects. What resonates in those and many other clips is Hall’s steadfast desire to remain in conversation with and accessible to diverse communities even while attempting to engage new and sometimes complicated analyses of the social relations and cultural dynamics of post-war capitalism and to articulate an expanded conception of the political.

Hall’s candidness in the film about things that fundamentally altered his way of thinking is especially striking. Feminism, he admits, had an unanticipated and profound impact on him and Cultural Studies, which, in its early stages, had been mostly concerned with class questions (and, thus, male questions). Indeed, Hall acknowledges that, for him, feminism surfaced the distinctions between adopting certain convictions intellectually and actually adjusting the ways you live and relate: it forced him to question his own attachments to certain gender and sexual norms.

In recycling and effectively manipulating materials from the past, Akomfrah invites deep reflection of Hall, a figure who remains dedicated to advancing social, political, and epistemic change, while taxing the boundaries of the cinematic form with The Stuart Hall Project. The result is a stirring film that sophisticatedly deploys montage to map the various elements and different pathways that proved critical in the makings of Hall’s many identities. And, powerfully, accompanying it all are the sounds of Miles Davis. At 18 or 19, Hall recalls early in the film, Davis managed to put a finger on his soul. With The Stuart Hall Project, Akomfrah manages to capture Hall’s heart.

***

Isaiah M. Wooden is a writer, performance-maker and doctoral candidate in Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University. He’s spending the 2013-2014 academic year as a guest artist in Theater and Performance Studies at Georgetown University. You can follow him on twitter @black_nostalgic.

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