The career of renowned British cultural theorist Stuart Hall is difficult to categorize, its areas of study and influence extending from politics to sociology to the arts. So it’s apt that veteran British docmaker John Akomfrah’s “The Stuart Hall Project” should take something of a rag-and-bone approach to celebrating Hall’s life and work, marrying his key philosophies to a cornucopia of historical archive footage and a selection of landmark compositions by Hall’s favorite musician, Miles Davis. Results are handsome and heartfelt, though not especially complex in their engagement with the subject; festival programmers and public service broadcasters should respond warmly.
“When I ask somebody where they’re from,” Hall is quoted as saying near the start of the film, “I expect to be told an extremely long story.” Auds unfamiliar with the man widely credited as one of Britain’s first major nonwhite intellectuals may need a short one to begin with. Akomfrah is working in a less opaque mode than he was in 2010’s avant-garde hybrid doc “The Nine Muses,” but his work remains heavier on evocation than information: This “Project” jumps eagerly into Hall’s cultural legacy and personal memories, but doesn’t offers cursory definitions of such key concepts as British Cultural Studies or some of Hall’s most important theories.
Akomfrah is less interested in academic specifics than in the social and environmental reflections of Hall’s New Left ideas. Sourcing a remarkable selection of historical archive material covering events both momentous and mundane from the latter half of the 20th century, the film compiles a pictorial scrapbook of a world in rapid social flux, guided by vintage broadcasts of Hall advocating integration and equality. The film’s specific historical reference points go no further than the immediate post-Thatcher era of the 1990s, though it might have been interesting to see Akomfrah apply Hall’s still-pertinent teachings to the political upheavals of the new century.
Hall’s personal journey is frequently woven into this tapestry, including remembrances of his working-class childhood in Jamaica, his own sense of immigrant displacement, and the vocal prejudice he experienced upon marrying a white woman.
It’s a lot of material, fluidly edited by Nse Asuquo into a sustained narrative, though the rich illustration has the effect of turning Hall’s philosophies into floating soundbites; frequent onscreen chapter headings along the lines of “Minimal Multicultural Selves” and “The Crisis and the Racial Lens,” don’t do much to illuminate proceedings. The film could hardly fail to sound great, given Akomfrah’s decision to score most of it to classic Miles Davis recordings, from “Kind of Blue” to “Bitches’ Brew,” that Hall himself cites as an inspiration. Still, “My Funny Valentine” isn’t the obvious soundtrack to footage of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.