When I saw John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation at the Bluecoat in November 2012 I was deeply moved. Like everyone else I know who saw the three-screen installation based on the life, work and thoughts of the Jamaican-born sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall, I loved it so much, I had to go back and see it again several times.
Since then, Akomfrah has expanded his exploration of Hall’s life and legacy in a documentary film, The Stuart Hall Project, that was released last year. Following the news of Stuart Hall’s death, we watched the film on DVD last night. However, watching the 90 minute film turned out to be very different to the experience of being immersed in the multiple screen poetry of The Unfinished Conversation. At twice the length, The Stuart Hall Project obviously shares the same genes as the installation, but is a quite different creature: the film, mainly utilising different archive footage, is structured in a more linear fashion, and is less lyrical, poetic and moving than its antecedent.
If that makes it sound as if I am unimpressed, I must make clear that The Stuart Hall Project, although having a more conventional documentary format, is nevertheless intellectually stimulating, and beautifully composed. At the film’s close Akomfrah adds a personal dedication, ‘with deepest gratitude and respect’, and now that Stuart Hall is dead, Akomrah’s lovingly compiled film will stand as a testament to Hall and the ideas of the British New Left to which he contributed so much. In the generous booklet that accompanies the DVD, Akomfrah explains:
I always wanted to try to do a film about the New Left in Britain, that postwar period that is so often ignored. And the more we looked at it the more we realised that we could tell this whole story through Stuart’s amazing life.
Akomfrah’s film is not a straight biography, although it is more conventionally chronological than the installation in the way it organises its material. Crafted from a meticulous sifting of over 100 hours of archival footage featuring Hall (mainly gathered from the BBC and Channel 4), it unfolds simultaneously as a tribute to a great academic and communicator, a study of the emergence of the New Left and its political ideas, and as an essay on post-colonialism and diasporic experience in Britain.
There’s another key element: the music of Miles Davis. The soundtrack is dominated by the cool, languid music of Hall’s favourite musician: Miles ‘put a finger on my soul’, Hall says. Akonfrah – quoting Hall’s words, ‘nostalgia for what cannot be is in the sound of Miles Davis’ trumpet’ – uses Miles’ music to structure the film’s narrative, an alternative, intersecting route through the same historical period that the film tracks. This is more than just a question of favourite music – it is also symbolic of the contention by Hall and other New Left thinkers in the late 50s and early 60s that shifts and insurrections in popular culture were as significant as economic and ideological questions. In other words, Miles’ music and persona represent not just the Birth of the Cool, but also the birth of cultural studies. Having recognised its significance, however, I do feel it was a mistake to insert a caption on screen every time a new Davis track floated on the soundtrack: distracting and a little too pedantic.
‘I was an outsider from the time I was born,’ Hall says at one point. He identifies himself as a ‘twenty-first century man’ who does not ‘belong anywhere any longer’, a man of many ‘routes’ (he chuckles as he spells out the word he means). Hall, then, is representative of the strand of thought with which he is most associated – the social and political implications of post-war immigration patterns that created a multicultural Britain, a country with an increasingly mixed heritage inhabited by growing numbers of people of mixed heritage. Hall identifies himself as a man of many origins, born into a middle-class Jamaican family of mixed Portuguese-Jewish, African and English descent, he was ‘three shades darker than my family’.
This is the Unfinished Conversation that was Stuart Hall’s personal experience and the subject of a lifetime’s analysis:
Identities are formed at the unstable point where personal lives meet the narrative of history. Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation.
Akomfrah’s film traces Hall’s trajectory, from his childhood in Jamaica to his career as a very public British intellectual. ‘Stuart Hall was kind of a rock star for us,’ Akomfrah writes in the DVD booklet:
For many of 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. His very iconic presence on this most public of platforms suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities.
Certainly, one of the remarkable things about watching this film is the revelation of how deeply committed Hall was to the task of communicating complex and challenging ideas to a mass audience. The clips from the archives of the BBC and the early Channel 4 that have been excavated from the archives by Akomfrah take us back to a time when television discourse was much more open than now, when audience share and marketing are the prime drivers of programming.
I think that it is this to which Mark Fisher refers when he writes in the DVD booklet:
I wept when I saw The Unfinished Conversation at the Liverpool Biennial – not something one expects to do in the largely arid and affectless terrain of contemporary art. Others told me that they, too, had cried. We were weeping because we had only recognised the full extent of what we had lost when Akomfrah recovered it.
Akomfrah’s film follows Hall from his arrival at Oxford University, through the foundation of the New Left following the crises of 1956, to his founding, with Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, of the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies and his work with the Open University. Throughout, Hall writes for New Left Review and other journals, travels the country addressing public meetings and lectures extensively on the subjects of race, identity, and social change in Britain. And, as the archive footage assembled by Akonfrah makes evident, Hall is constantly on TV – articulate and assured, with that mellifluous voice explaining matters with clarity and forthrightness. That voice spoke from and for a new kind of Britain – one in which you need not be white, or speak with a Home Counties accent, to be respected and accepted as an authority.
In the DVD booklet, Akomfrah pinpoints the impact which Stuart Hall’s TV appearances had for him and other black teenagers in the 1970s:
In those heady, mono-cultural days, he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. I loved all the athletes and singers and dancers too but when you are a black teenage bookworm in seventies West London, let’s just say a public intellectual of colour disseminating ideas on television offered other more immediate compensations. Stuart Hall was a kind of rock star for us; a pop icon with brains whose very iconic presence on this most public of platforms – television – suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities’. By just being there in our bedrooms and living rooms, he opened up pathways into that space that he has referred as the place of ‘the unfinished conversation’, that space in which the dialogue between us and the external world begins, that place of identity. With him and through him we began to ask the indispensable questions of that conversation: who are we, what are we and what could we become.
In his essay for the DVD release, Akomfrah states that all of his work has been concerned with ‘the presence of memory’, as a way into describing all our lives:
It begins there; with memory, with uncovering the stems of memory, the ghosts of history sifting through the debris and detritus of past events for traces of the phantoms. It begins with searching and rummaging through all those itineraries, those collective unfinished conversations that tell us something about how a bright young Rhodes scholar from colonial Jamaica, became ‘Stuart Hall’. In understanding him and the movements he shaped and was shaped by, we begin to understand something about how we became what we are: the Suez crisis, the Hungarian revolution, the anti-colonial project, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the new Left, feminism, class politics, cultural studies. All these interventions, these unfinished conversations. And, in honouring him, we honour the best in ourselves.
‘Amen to that’, Akomfrah concludes, and one can only agree, heartily. For those events, issues and changes are what have shaped all our lives, whatever individual routes we traced through the postwar decades. We have all benefited from the legacy of that politics of inclusion, the values that Hall fought and argued for. As Akomfrah – a migrant of another, younger generation, the son of Ghanaian political activists – told Tim Adams of the Observer:
Every time I look at my own life here, and the lives of my children, I see something that the work of Stuart and others allowed. They helped to create a way for us to really live here. It didn’t happen by accident but through example and struggle; looking back it might be easy for some to be dismissive of that, but I think my daily life is a validation of that work.
In his Observer article, Tim Adams remarks that:
Watching Akomfrah’s film, which traces Hall’s journey from childhood in Jamaica, through his arrival in Britain and Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1950, to now, you come to see how pivotal his voice has been in shaping the progressive debates of our times – around race, gender and sexuality – and how an increasingly conservative culture has worked lately to marginalise his nuanced understanding of this country.
If Stuart Hall heard in Miles Davis’s music a ‘nostalgia for what cannot be’, watching John Akonfrah’s account of Hall’s life, with its commitment to multiculturalism and progressive ideas, evokes a different nostalgia – for a time when such ideas and arguments made a vital contribution to debate about British identity.
- Film of the week: The Stuart Hall Project (BFI)
- Jazz fan, hipster and a leftwing hero; the remarkable journey of Stuart Hall (Observer)
- Remembering Stuart Hall and The Unfinished Conversation
- John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation