Film Explores One Man’s Vision of Race, Culture and Identity

The Unfinished Conversation is a poignant and captivating tribute to cultural theorist Stuart Hall.

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Scene from The Unfinished Conversation

Tate Britain

Lauded British-African filmmaker John Akomfrah’s aesthetically captivating and poignant homage to Jamaican polymath, cultural theorist and British intellectual Stuart Hall is a real must-see, and one that I am all the richer for having seen.

Currently showing as a multilayered video installation at Tate Britain for the next six months, this three-screen film montage is entitled The Unfinished Conversation, which roughly summarizes Hall’s thesis that identity is “about becoming, not essence or being.”

As someone now happily reconciled to inhabiting a liminal world where race, identity, shade and culture all (at times painfully) intersect, I found Hall’s notion that identity and ethnicity are not fixed but mutable, ambiguous and perennially malleable constructs open to self-definition (hence the film’s title) to be strikingly, almost disconcertingly relevant to me and my own lived experience, not to mention intellectually challenging and incredibly empowering.

A proud, brown-skinned Jamaican of mixed Portuguese-Jewish, African and English descent, Hall chose to define himself as politically black—something that imbued the development of multiculturalism in the United Kingdom. Akomfrah’s film situates Hall as one of the pioneers of both the academic discipline of cultural studies and the New Left political movement, but the director never forgets the emotional, deeply human side of his subject. In so doing, explorations of personal, cultural and ethnic identity all seamlessly fuse in the montage.

By no means is the film merely a biographical account of Hall’s journey from a colonial Jamaican upbringing to his arrival in postwar Britain in 1951 to study as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and then on to a distinguished career in academia and a host of media appearances in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The film is interspersed with highly lyrical and apposite readings from William Blake, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Mervyn Peake—readings that, beyond their own intrinsic beauty and meaning, further highlight Hall’s immersion in (and appreciation of) the Western literary canon. It is fitting when Hall, as a postcolonial intellectual thoroughly schooled in the canon, duly uses those tools to critique the West.

In addition, whether it is newsreel footage of the 1956 Suez Crisis, jazz masters Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, the racially motivated murder of Kelso Cochrane in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood or U.S. helicopter gunships in Vietnam, the historical images deftly selected by Akomfrah to punctuate, anchor and elucidate Hall’s personal story do so with a combination of great power, great pathos and great beauty.

Part of Akomfrah’s genius is that visually arresting yet often stark images—be they of lush, tropical Jamaica juxtaposed with bleak, cold, postwar industrial Britain or of students lost in a ferment of 1960s radicalism and new hope—illustrate far more than his subject’s personal, intellectual and emotional journey of self-development.

The Hall who emerges from Akomfrah’s unashamedly hagiographic yet candid portrait is intensely likable. From painful acknowledgments of the colorism prevalent in his own family during his Jamaican childhood to images of the dapper Rhodes scholar and subsequently the genial television presenter and academic, Hall comes across as a mercurial, crusading figure, full of highly articulate, messianic zeal and righteous intellectual energy deployed in the service of the marginalized, the oppressed and the dispossessed.

Scholarly yet accessible, thoughtful and inspiring, Akomfrah’s film has all the hallmarks of his earlier work. Teasing, poetic, lyrical and hard-hitting, this is the welcome story of a remarkable man who, through his work, changed many lives for the better; a thought-provoking meditation on a black icon of British intellectual life, his manifold achievements, his generous humanity and his overwhelming desire to stand up for liberty and equality for all.

A self-proclaimed “child of the world,” Hall, though already comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of British intellectual deities, deserves far wider public recognition for his outstanding contribution to postwar culture, art and thought—as does, for that matter, Akomfrah, who, thankfully, at last seems to be getting the prominence his directing talents deserve.