John Akomfrah on Stuart Hall: ‘When I first read him, I thought he was white’

Two years before his death in 2014, Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist, political activist and founding editor of radical journal the New Left Review, collaborated with the artist and film-maker John Akomfrah on The Unfinished Conversation. The extraordinary filmic art installation, projected on a triptych of screens, attempted to evoke and translate Hall’s life and ideas until 1968’s cultural revolution. Akomfrah adopts an approach that has become his signature, weaving together voiceover with music, newly shot footage and TV and film archive material. On its 10th anniversary it is being remounted at the Midlands Arts Centre as part of Birmingham 2022 festival.

Even on a Zoom call, Akomfrah is luminous; he’s an intellectual without pretension and his blue, French workman’s jacket looks lived in. Behind him are cabinets with each drawer identified by a single photo. More artwork and paraphernalia are propped up on the walls. Laughter prefaces all the answers to my questions, especially the mischievous ones. I start by asking what drew him to Hall.

“It was Stuart’s questioning of blackness in his early 1970s writing,” he says. “Its evolution in this country, its multiple transformations. When I first read him, though, I thought he was white. Only when I saw that campaign against racism in the media programme he made with Maggie Steed in 1979, It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum, did I realise: Oh, the brother’s black!” Prescient and excoriating, It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum revealed how the overt racism of British TV comedy and light entertainment shows was also broadcast more subtly in current affairs programmes.

“What I wouldn’t understand until later was that Stuart had many struggles, conflicts, and conversations himself on this question of blackness,” Akomfrah continues. “It wasn’t a given for him either.” When Hall arrived in Britain in 1951 on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, he found that white Britons did not distinguish between the classes of pioneering Caribbean migrants; he was considered just another irksome black man and faced even greater hostility when he married Catherine, a white woman.

Akomfrah’s installation The Unfinished Conversation.
A poignant portrait … Akomfrah’s installation The Unfinished Conversation. Photograph: Toni Hafkenscheid toni@thphotos.com/Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

With its evocative use of Miles Davis’s music and archive footage marking the defining moments of Hall’s political activism – the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) protests, US attack helicopters firing into the Vietnam rainforest, Russian tanks on Hungarian streets, Hall addressing crowds and protesters – I see Akomfrah’s triptych as a poignant portrait of Hall’s personal and public life. Akomfrah agrees, mostly.

“Its central conceit, which emerged in discussions with Stuart over many months, was that identities are constructed, at these crossroads of the historical, the imaginary and the psychic. Stuart was a perfect illustration of that; the question of identity had been a flowing river in his own life.” In the film, Hall describes himself as three shades darker than his family and how he felt like an outsider in a colonial society that promoted whiteness and its fair-skinned brown approximation. “But a portrait on its own wasn’t enough,” says Akomfrah. “We also needed to rummage through the history of the last century to make sense of the vicissitudes of race and the fortunes of the New Left.”

In the 1950s and 60s a broad collection of leftwing activists, student radicals and intellectuals came together as the New Left; it was a movement opposed to colonialism, imperialism and orthodox communism, and its revolutionary challenge to find a “third way” culminated in 1968 in mass protests in western Europe and North America. Akomfrah, who remains impressed by the New Left Review takes issue with the notion that its influence has diminished. “There was a time when people talked about the focus of the New Lefta social democratic anti-imperialism – as if it were an entirely white and European affair, even though we were embroiled in racial and cultural aspects from the beginning,” he says. “And that’s why in The Unfinished Conversation I revisited the crises of Suez and Vietnam.”

Akomfrah’s sense of common purpose with the New Left was expressed in his early films, such as Handsworth Songs, made in 1986 with the Black Audio Film Collective, illuminating the hostility directed at black people in Britain. His sympathies still reside with the New Left. “Even today, if you read New Left Review, reflecting on the current crisis in Ukraine, you’d see it’s always been good at identifying how the immediate past has a bearing on the present. So, where people see the disappearance of the New Left, I see longevity.”

Stuart Hall.
‘I think he’s haunted by questions of complicity’ … Stuart Hall. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/the Guardian

Moving from the secular to the sacred I suggest that the triptych form, exemplified in art history in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, has a devotional quality. Akomfrah accepts the point but argues that his triptych offers, “both, in its visual and musical form, a way of making discursivity manifest, visible. Focusing on a figure [Hall], a time, a history, a political movement and shifting identity; the triptych could survey and embody that panorama.”

In one early scene, underscored by nostalgic 1950s jazz and Hall’s silky-smooth voiceover offering social observations, on the central screen is Super 8 home video footage of an unidentified person relaxing in a swaying hammock on a Caribbean porch. There are two further screens, one on each side: one shows a colourful, perhaps colourised, photo of elegant colonial-era cars in Kingston, Jamaica, with the Blue Mountains in the background; the other is of commuters, captured in black-and-white BBC archive footage, emerging from London trains. Slowly, almost imperceptibly the voiceover gives way to the sound of rolling thunder announcing a coming storm. What, I ask Akomfrah, governed the alignment of images?

“I wanted to get a centre-screen story right and then find counterparts for the left and right panels. It’s a portrait of a life in transition as well as a mirror to historical transformations that have some relationship with that life. I’m trying to suggest spaces in which a set of elective affinities overlapped and took place.” There’s warmth and candour in Hall’s testimony but I wonder whether Akomfrah felt any hesitancy in highlighting Hall’s mother and the nature of Jamaica’s caste system. Colonial Jamaica prejudicially consigned the majority black population to the footstool of society, such that, as recounted by the journalist and scholar Vivian Durham, “it was the ambition of every black man to be white.”

At one point Hall remembers his mother moaning about “awful black people who are spoiling Britain with their presence; they should be driven off the pier with a big broom”. More than snobbishness, perhaps there’s self-loathing, I ask Akomfrah. “The question of a caste system or pigmentocracy is central to the formation of Jamaica and to Stuart. I included it because it seemed to say something quite profound about his life.”

The Unfinished Conversation.
It was key that we brought not just the ideas but the look of the ideas into the present … The Unfinished Conversation. Photograph: Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

Hall was critical of his mother’s snobbishness and prejudice. “And the tragic story of his sister who was forbidden by her mother from marrying a doctor because he was too dark-skinned … Stuart revisited this again and again, to the point where it was almost like a primal scene. His own role in it is what haunts him. He tells you the story but at some point you think: mate, what did you do? I think he’s haunted by questions of complicity.”

Like many artists, Akomfrah always finds fault looking back at his work, but 10 years on he’s still content with the look of the triptych. “We went into the BBC archive and tried to transfer everything useful from the original material into something pristine and viewer friendly. It was important that we freed the archival material from the overarching tyranny of degradation because with it comes a set of assumptions. ‘Oh, it’s old, from the past, looks crappy, and therefore of no value.’ It was key that we brought not just the ideas but the look of the ideas into the present.”

Akomfrah is glad Hall got to see The Unfinished Conversation before he died in 2014 and recalls its poignancy. “We started working together from the very beginning; he was a seen and unseen guest, if you like. He seemed to be moved by The Unfinished Conversation … which was important to me. But in the end it’s a kind of failure,” he says wryly, “since the project was about trying to keep him alive.” Ten years on, does Akomfrah feel his work has resonance today? “This was made before the Black Lives Matter explosion, that whole becoming of blackness as a sort of public spectacle of protest and affirmation that we’ve lived through. There’s a prophetic echo of those themes in The Unfinished Conversation. It is prescient and timely.”

When I tell Akomfrah the title of my forthcoming memoir, I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be, he nods and laughs heartily, recognising its irony. “I hear you. This is one of the central governing conversations of blackness. What do you let go and what do you allow to define you? Neither of us are ever going to claim that somehow we’ve reached some moment of transcendence, where we’ve escaped the freedoms and tyrannies of blackness. And I don’t say that out of pride because nobody wants to hang on to shit that’s about causing you grief. It is not easy being black.”

Finally, he switches back to my earlier question of the devotional. “I don’t think it’s possible to speak about the question of blackness without also, in some way, reaching into the space of the spiritual. The Unfinished Conversation has that spiritual or hymnal quality.” I say amen to that.