John Akomfrah on his film “The Stuart Hall Project”
I came to learn of Stuart Hall in the 1980s London and with him my introduction and understanding of being Black British – not something I ever felt personally but an identity that made sense to my children growing up Black in Britain. As Akomfrah writes, Stuart Hall was a kind of ‘rock star – pop icon with brains’ disseminating race and empire… We were proud, we listened and learned….
“I’ve been making projects on memory for a while now, but this one feels like the one I have been ‘preparing’ for a very long time indeed, possibly all my working life.
In our teenage years, there is always at least one person we meet or see perform or watch on the screen who in that first encounter leaves such an indelible mark on our soul that we end saying to ourselves: “when I grow up, I want be just like that; I want to be that cool, that hip, that confident, that compelling”.
Of course we always change our minds later since this is after all our ‘growing up’ years. But whatever reasons we subsequently give ourselves for our change of mind, for that shift in our thinking, secretly we also know that it usually coincides with the growing realization that we don’t have the talent or the brains or the wherewithal to become that person.
Once we accept we are never going to be exactly like our heroes, something very interesting begins for us because the initial burst of enthusiasm they sparked off, the charismatic example they offered about the purpose and direction one’s own life could take, these remain with you, moulding and shaping one’s expectations and, crucially, what ‘deals’ we end up making with this unfolding thing called life.
For many of my generation in the seventies, Stuart Hall was just such a figure. 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 begun to ask the indispensable questions of that conversation: who are we, what are we and what could we become.
Throughout the making of The Stuart Hall Project, I’ve thought a lot about this questions of identity and of our ‘debt’ to this man. I’ve also thought a lot about the poignancy of the eulogy delivered at the funeral of Malcolm X by Ossie Davis, especially the section where Davis talks about “the presence of his (Malcolm’s) memory”. And the section I find the most affecting in that eulogy, the one I returned to again and again to the point where it became the organizing motif for this piece, comes at the end when Davis says “.. in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves“.
The presence of memory. What a wonderful way of describing all our lives. And for me, the question of ‘honoring’ 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 very 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 honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. Amen to that.”