John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation

‘Difference is what is really exciting about the world’.
- Stuart Hall

I haven’t seen much of the contemporary art on display in the 2012 Liverpool Biennial – somehow the hermetic, jargon-laden language that seems to permeate this year’s jamboree makes me feel like an unwelcome guest at a party strictly for those in the loop.  But one work I have seen is a gem: John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation at the Bluecoat is a three-screen video based on the life, work and thoughts of the Jamaican-born sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall.  Remarkably, for a film about sociology and theoretical approaches to cultural identity, Akomfrah’s presentation manages to be beautiful, lyrical and poetic; it is moving, intellectually stimulating, and pushes the boundaries of documentary film-making.

I loved it so much, I had to go back and see the work several times.  Though Akomfrah’s film unfolds against images and events from the life of one man who arrived on these shores as an immigrant from Jamaica in 1951 and went on to graduate from Oxford University and build a career as an academic and media commentator, immersed in the flood of images on Akomfrah’s three huge screens, there are wider, deeper and more personal resonances: these are the times through which we have all lived these last 60 years.  The carefully selected images of British society in flux and of rebellion and resistance in the decades following the 1950s represent my own history, if not my own experience.

Identities are formed at the unstable point where personal lives meet the narrative of history.  Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation.
- Stuart Hall

In this remarkable, multi-layered film Stuart Hall’s ideas about identity, immigration and selfhood (Hall’s own mellifluous voice captured in archive TV and radio clips) unfold against a kaleidoscope of images (newsreel footage and family photos and film) juxtaposed with readings from William Blake, Dickens, Mervyn Peake and Virginia Woolf, and music – the jazz that Hall loves, and a rich mixture of other tonalities, from the gospel voice of Mahalia Jackson to the ethereal, wordless chanting of Stephan Micus. The result is a brilliant work that combines biography, social and cultural history with a meditation on individual memory and personal identity.

It is dawn, England, across the city in the countryside the light grows. On the soundtrack, lines from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves:

The sun rose. Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore …Now, too, the rising sun came in at the window, touching the red-edged curtain …The wind rose.  The waves drummed on the shore, like turbanned warriors, like turbanned men with poisoned assegais who, whirling their arms on high, advance upon the feeding flocks, the white sheep.

Sunlight slants across the verandah of the Hall family’s house in Jamaica.

‘I lived in the most exquisitely differentiated class system in the world.’

On Desert Island Discs in 2000, Hall tells Sue Lawley how, growing up in a middle-class Jamaican family of mixed Portuguese-Jewish, African and English descent, he absorbed a deep sense of an ambiguous identity from an early age: ‘I was three shades darker than anyone else in my family’. He felt an outsider even in his own home as a child, and was no less alienated as a student:

‘I was too black in my family…an outsider from the time I was born.’

Akomfrah punctuates his film with occasional titles, and one appears now: the promise of beyond.

I was brought up in a lower middle class  family in Jamaica.  I left there  in  the  early  fifties to go and study  in  England.  Until I left, though I suppose 98 per cent of the Jamaican population is either Black or coloured in one way or another, I had never ever heard anybody either call themselves, or  refer to anybody else as ‘Black’. Never. I heard a thousand other words. My grandmother could differentiate about fifteen different shades between  light  brown and dark brown. When I left Jamaica, there was a beauty contest in which the different shades of women were graded according to  different trees, so that there was Miss Mahogany, Miss Walnut, etc.

People think of Jamaica as a simple society. In fact, it had the most complicated colour stratification system in the world. Talk about practical semioticians; anybody in my family could compute and calculate anybody’s social status by grading the particular quality of their hair versus the particular quality of the family they came from and which street they lived in, including physiognomy, shading, etc. You could trade off one characteristic against another. Compared with that, the normal class stratification system is absolute child’s play.

In an interview with Caryl Phillips in 1997, Stuart Hall recalled:

Most of my life had been spent thinking that the apogee of scholarly work and education was to get a scholarship and go to England to be finished off, and then come back, as it were, civilized. A good proportion of my life as a schoolboy was spent in the study of English literature, romantic poets, British history and so on. When I came to England in 1951 I came by boat. I arrived in Bristol and took an early autumn journey from Bristol to Oxford, and I thought, I know this place, I know everything about this place, it’s absolutely completely familiar. It was a homecoming.

In Akomfrah’s film the needle drops on a Miles Davis lp and Hall speaks of going to Oxford University: ‘I had to go through it, but I couldn’t leave it behind’. The improvisation and spontaneity of the jazz unfurling on the soundtrack a contrast to the rigidities of his Caribbean upbringing. At Oxford he played in a jazz band with a saxophonist and a drummer who were Oxford bus drivers and conductors who had migrated from the Caribbean with their families. Someone reads from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone:

‘Suddenly his eyes were wide open.  Where was he? Who was he?  There was no knowing’.

In the same moment that he graduated from Oxford, Stuart Hall’s politics were shaped by the crucial events of 1956 – Suez and Hungary. The ‘idea of democratic socialist anti-imperialist politics was born’.  With figures such as EP Thompson, Ralph Miliband and Raymond Williams he launched the New Left Review.  From 1959 to 1961 he edited the journal whilst working first as a supply teacher in Brixton and then teaching media studies at Chelsea College.  In 1957 he was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

For Akomfrah, this represents ‘the coming of transmutation’: his three screens immerse the viewer in footage of Hungary and Suez, CND and the Aldermaston marches, the Notting Hill race riots and murders, Hall at a demonstration speaking out for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Sometimes a blood red screen punctuates the flow of images.  Words from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone are heard: ‘his gaze wandered for the first time … to the north … and came to rest on a city’.  This was a time when Hall spoke at meetings up and down the country, when he encountered the cities and working class people of northern England for the first time. Lines from Dickens’ Hard Times murmur above the images:

Coketown … was a triumph of fact. … It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it. … It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long …

It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same payments, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

Ellington plays alongside images of the Sharpeville massacre and Hall articulates why he thinks equality was the driving force behind freedom movements:

‘I question the opposition between liberty and equality.  It has been the idea of equality that has mobilized nationalist movements.  When they said ‘we want to be free’ what they meant was ‘I want to be free not to be unequal”

Hall appears in clips from a BBC TV film, England Our England, made in  1964 with Richard Hoggart.  It’s an examination of English provincial working class life and people, and appears in the same year that Hall in effect launched the discipline of media studies with Teaching Film, examining  the new wave of northern British film-making, co-wrote The Popular Arts and was invited by Hoggart to join his newly established Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. Four years later, in another year of cultural and political turning points, Hall will be appointed director of the Centre. Lines from William Blake echo images of the turbulent times:

I heard an Angel singing
When the day was springing 
Mercy Pity Peace
Is the worlds release 
I heard a Devil curse
Over the heath & the furze 
Mercy could be no more 
If there was nobody poor

The question of identity becomes urgent: it’s a question for all young people but is, above all and at this time, one for young blacks. Who they’re going to be? Every child – white or coloured – wants to belong to the world, but what does it signify when the price of belonging is that you want to change the colour of your skin?  Words from Gormenghast again:

‘To the north, south, east or west, turning at will, it was not long before his landmarks fled him. Gone was the outline of his mountainous home. … Gone boyhood. Gone.  It was no more than a memory now.  … From the gold shores to the cold shores:  through lands as harsh as metal he made his way.’

It’s here that Akomfrah arrives at the core of his exploration of Stuart Hall’s geographical passage from the Caribbean shore to the cold and unwelcoming shores of Britain and his metaphysical journey into black identity and the meaning of multiculturalism. Hall had been worrying at the fabric of this question for some time: Akomfrah has earlier offered us a clip from one of Hall’s earliest TV appearances – presenting a documentary on the 20th century experience of Jewish immigrants to Britain – and now we hear his voice in a clip from a BBC radio series, Generation of Strangers.  Akomfrah leads this passage with a screen caption: ‘Roads to freedom’.

Hall had married and begun raising a family. He and his wife had experienced racism in Birmingham and elsewhere, and the experience was leading to him shifting his sense of class identity to one rooted in what, for most English people at the time, was the most tangible badge of his identity – the colour of his skin.

‘Britain is my home, but I’m not English’

Akomfrah has located an evocative clip from Ebony, the 1970s BBC TV magazine show for ethnic minorities, of Stuart Hall making a rousing speech about the new generation of British youngsters who proudly and defiantly identify themselves as black.  This was a crucial moment in the evolution of Hall’s thinking – and his own personal sense of identity, necessitating a shift from a view of his place in society that was class-based:

‘I went home and my mother said ‘I hope they didn’t think you are one of those immigrants’

When I went to England, I wouldn’t have called myself an immigrant either, which  is  what we were  all known as.  It was  not until I went back home in the early 1960s that my mother who, as a good middle-class colored Jamaican woman, hated all Black people, (you know, that is the truth) said to me, “I hope they don’t think you’re an immigrant over there.”

I went back to England and I became what I’d been named. I had been hailed as an immigrant. I had discovered who I was. I started to tell myself the story of my migration. Then Black erupted and people said, ‘Well, you’re from the Caribbean, in the midst of this, identifying with what’s going on, the Black population in England. You’re Black.’ At that very moment, my son, who was two and half, was learning the  colors.  I said  to  him, transmitting the  message  at last,  ‘You’re Black’. And he said, ‘No. I’m brown’. And I said, ‘Wrong referent. Mistaken concreteness, philosophical mistake. I’m not talking about your paintbox, I’m talking about your head’. That is something different.  The question of learning, learning to be Black. Learning to come into an identification.

Something new was being born. Mahalia Jackson hums and sings ‘Christ the Saviour is born’ as a mother gives birth.  Disasters abound: the Torrey Canyon, villages bombed and burning in Vietnam, cities in flames in America. Family snapshots of Hall, his wife and children holidaying by the sea.  In apartheid South Africa, a whites-only beach is invaded by protestors who are brutally manhandled by police.

‘As the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after the other, beneath the surface … ‘

People fleeing repression  flail desperately at the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain. Marchers in Selma, banners unfurled, have their eyes on the prize. In England, Enoch Powell warns of rivers of blood to come. Stuart Hall asserts: ‘We are here to stay‘.

‘It was not until the civil rights and decolonisation movements that I understood my identity.’

Stuart Hall published Policing the Crisis (1978) before being appointed Professor of Sociology at the Open University the following year. One of many more key texts was Questions of Cultural Identity published in 1996.

There’s not much respect for black PhDs from Oxford, which was one of the things I learned. People looked at me as an immigrant, they couldn’t tell me apart from another boy just knocking around. Notting Hill—the New Left Club had a club in Notting Hill that we were involved in. You know, walking with families back to Palace Terrace, protecting them against the Mosleyites. In a sense race made it possible for a connection to be made.

In ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, a lecture published in Culture, Globalization and the World-System (1991) Hall discussed the way in which the Black diasporas who settled here in the  period of post-war migration in the fifties  and sixties transformed British social, economic and political life, and, at the same time, came to a new understanding of their own identities:

In the first  generations, the majority of people had the same illusion that I did:  that I was about to go back home.  That may have been because everybody always asked me: when was I going back home? We did think that we were just going to get back on the boat; we were here for a temporary sojourn. By the seventies, it was perfectly clear that we were not there for a temporary sojourn.  Some people were going  to stay and then the politics of racism really emerged.

Now one  of  the  main reactions  against  the  politics  of  racism  in Britain was what I would call   ‘Identity Politics One’, the first form of identity politics. It had to do with the constitution of some defensive collective identity against the practices of racist society. It had to do with the fact that people were being blocked out of and refused an identity and identification within the majority nation,  having  to find some other roots on which to stand. Because people have to find some ground, some place, some position on which to stand. Blocked out of any access to an English or British identity, people had to try to discover who they were. This is … the crucial moment of the rediscovery or the search for roots. In  the  course  of  the  search  for  roots,  one  discovered  not  only where one came from, one began to speak the language of that which is home in the genuine sense, that other crucial moment which is the recovery  of lost  histories.  The  histories  that  have never  been  told about ourselves that we could not learn in schools, that were not in any books, and that we had to recover.[...]  The identity which that … produced in Britain, as it did elsewhere, was the category Black. [...]

Anti-racism in the seventies was only fought and only resisted in the community, in the localities, behind the slogan of a Black politics and the Black experience. In that moment, the enemy was ethnicity. The  enemy had to be what we called ‘multi-culturalism’. Because multi-culturalism was precisely what I called previously ‘the exotic’. The exotica of difference.  Nobody would talk about racism but they were perfectly prepared to  have ‘International Evenings’,  when we would all come and cook our native dishes, sing our own native songs and appear in our  own native  costume.  It is  true  that some  people,  some ethnic minorities in Britain, do have indigenous, very beautiful indigenous forms of dress. I didn’t. I had to rummage in the dressing-up box to find mine. I have been de-racinated for four hundred years. The last thing I am going to  do is  to  dress up in some native Jamaican costume.

In the same speech, Hall elaborated on the how, in his native Jamaica, social distinctions based on class and, as he puts it in  Akomfrah’s film, ‘exquisite’ gradations of skin colour trumped a common Black identity:

But the word “Black” was never uttered. Why? No Black people around? Lots of them, thousands and thousands of them. Black is not a question of pigmentation. The Black I’m talking about is a historical category, a political category, a cultural category. In our language, at certain historical moments, we have to use the signifier. We have to create an equivalence between how people look and what their histories are. Their histories are in the past, inscribed in their skins. But it is not because of their skins that they are Black in their heads. I heard Black for the first time in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, in the wake of the de-colonization and nationalistic struggles.  Black was created as  a political category in a certain historical moment.  It was created  as  a  consequence  of  certain symbolic and ideological struggles. We  said,  ‘You  have  spent  five,  six, seven hundred years elaborating the symbolism through which Black is  a negative  factor.  Now I  don’t want another term.  I want that term, that negative one, that’s the one I want. I want a piece of that action. I want to take it out of the way in which it has been articulated in religious discourse, in ethnographic discourse, in literary discourse, in visual discourse.  I want to pluck it out of its  articulation and re-articulate it in a  new way.”[...]

So identities are ‘never completed, never finished … they are always, as subjectivity itself is, in process. John Akomfrah is himself a migrant of another, younger generation, born in Accra in 1957, one of five children of Ghanaian political activists. He was educated in west London schools before graduating in Sociology from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982.  He co-founded the Black Audio Collective in the same year, with the objective of addressing issues of Black British identity.  His work always takes a deliberately questioning approach to documentary film-making, and that is very apparent here.  His first film was the remarkable Handsworth Songs (1986), which documented the 1985 disturbances in Handsworth and Broadwater Farm, reworking documentary conventions to explore the history of the black experience with an uncompromising intellectual rigour which some found disconcerting.  More recent films include Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), The Nine Muses (2010) and Mnenosyne (2010).

The Unfinished Conversation ends with a simple dedication – ‘for Stuart Hall, in gratitude and respect’ – and with these words from The Waves:

‘The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell … withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.’

I said at the start that Akomfrah’s film represents my own history (white, British), if not my own experience.  Yet, as Hall pointed out in ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, our experiences are in a certain crucial sense, shared.  As he told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs, ‘our fates and histories have been connected irrevocably … we have been a part of this story from the beginning … Empire is something absolutely deep and at the heart of English identity … it’s an inside part of Englishness …we are part of you’:

People like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries; symbolically, we have been there for centuries. I was coming home. I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth. There are thousands of others beside me that are,  you  know,  the  cup  of  tea itself.  Because  they don’t grow  it in Lancashire, you know. Not a  single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. This is the symbolization of English identity – I mean, what does  anybody  in  the  world  know  about  an  English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea?  Where does it come from?  Ceylon – Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English.  There is no English history  without that other history.  The notion that identity has to  do with people that look the same, feel the same, call themselves the same,  is  nonsense.

In his adulatory review for the Telegraph, Mark Hudson wrote that Hall’s story, ‘which might have appeared a rather obscure Caribbean tale, is told with a calm lucidity that makes it feel at once universal and profoundly British’. He noted that:

It is rare that there’s a degree of consensus, let alone unanimity, among critics and gallery-goers attending large contemporary arts events. But at the Liverpool Biennial (continuing until November 25), the main talking point has been The Unfinished Conversation, John Akomfrah’s beautiful and moving film about Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born academic and champion of cultural studies. Among the array of exhibitions and installations dotted about the city, many of them a touch lightweight or just plain opaque, Akomfrah’s film stands out as a work of substance that says important things about what Britain has become over the last half century.

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9 thoughts on “John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation

  1. Thanks for the recommendation Gerry. I’ve just been to see this this afternoon and was impressed and moved. I’ve never much liked the big multi-screen method (reminding me uncomfortably of the Woodstock film) but here it worked very well. So as the early Empire Windrush arrivals are being fleeced for rent by London slum landlords, we see war in Korea and Be Bop in the States happening at the same time. And the linking thread of Stuart Hall, sometimes part of the story, sometimes commenting ‘live’ – sometimes looking back.

    I can understand why you kept going back. I watched it twice and was surprised how much more I saw the second time through.

    And at no point did I feel I was in any kind of ‘art installation.’ This was only the second Biennial event I’ve been to. The other one, the Anfield Home Tour was similarly about social change and injustice and devoid of ‘the hermetic, jargon-laden language’ that often makes art so hard to approach.

  2. You know, Ronnie, I’ve recommended this to three or four friends this last week saying you must see it before it finishes on Sunday, and you’re now the third who’s come back thanking me for recommending it. Did I mention in the post that Akomfrah is working on a single-screen version? Hopefully we’ll see it on BBC TV sometime. I meant to check out the Anfield Home Tour, but time ran out unfortunately. I’ll have to make do with your excellent account of it. (http://asenseofplaceblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/the-anfield-home-tour/) Cheers, Gerry.

    • I wondered about the BBC being one of the film’s producers and why. Thought they might be coming round to everyone’s house with two extra TVs for the broadcast. Can’t help feel it might make it a dizzyingly fast edit to cover so much on one screen. But the film does deserve to get out of the art-houses.

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