The first black director of a British feature film, Pressure (1975), Horace Ové was born in Trinidad in 1939 but moved to England in 1960 to study painting. After six years in Rome where he worked as an extra on Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) among other things he returned to Britain where he graduated from film school and set about making Pressure with the help of many of his former classmates (both black and white). Ové has had a long and varied career as a filmmaker – working in television directing serious dramas for Play for Today and episodes of The Professionals – but he is best known for Pressure and 1986’s Playing Away – in which an English village cricket team organise a match against a South London Caribbean side. He is also well-known as a photographer, particularly for his photographs documenting the British Black Power movement in the 60s and 70s in which he was personally involved. A few of these are included on the DVD, including a shot of Darcus Howe protesting the famous Mangrove Restaurant case.
Ové co-wrote Pressure (with novelist Samuel Selvon) and also wrote the lyrics to the theme song which is used almost like a narrator within the film. Pressure was financed by the BFI (a very small budget too) but then shelved for two years due to the controversial depiction of police brutality. It tells the story of a British-born teenager, Tony (Herbert Norville), who leaves school with good ‘O’ levels (‘the star of the class’ according to his friend) but meets with thinly veiled racism and rejection when he tries to get a job. He is left to find his own way between his friends’ petty criminality (shop-lifting tinned food) and his brother Colin’s involvement with Black Power politics.
The culture clash is established by the opening shot of that symbol of Britishness – bacon and eggs sizzling in a pan (with Encona hot sauce on the table instead of HP). Colin arrives with an avocado from their father’s shop, insisting on calling it by its Trinidadian name and berating Tony for his taste in British food and British music.
‘What’s wrong with bacon and eggs, fish and chips and Gary Glitter?’ Tony demands almost answering his own question. Taking his defence their mother says, ‘Don’t forget he’s not like us. He born here.’, to which Colin replies, ‘That don’t make him white.’ For the rest of the film Tony finds himself torn between two cultures he is both part of and separate from.
Tony’s accent marks him as different from the rest of his family (all, like Ové, born in Trinidad) and his West Indian friends (‘Don’t give me that cockney ‘mate’ thing’). A variety of accents are heard throughout the film from the American activists, Tony’s Jamaican ‘street’ friends, his ‘cockney’ school friends and the middle-class accent of the accountancy firm’s interviewer. Characters are placed instantly within their respective cultures by the sound of their voices as clearly as by their skin colour. The strong accents led to problems with the distributors – Ové even considered adding subtitles.
It is after the accountancy job interview that Tony starts to ‘get the message’. The interviewer spouts a selection of ‘mildly’ racist questions – ‘How long have you been in this country?’ ‘Do you play cricket?’ ‘Have you been in trouble with the police?’ – and ends with a final and insincere ‘We’ll be in touch with you…Pretty soon.’ The effects of this ‘softer’ racism (but from a position of power) are felt just as much as that of his white girlfriend’s landlady screaming, ‘I’m not having people like that in this house.’ But the most damaging kind is the racism that is coupled with both power and aggression – that of the police. It was the film’s depiction of that ‘institutional racism’ that caused so much controversy on its original release. Police are seen raiding a peaceful meeting and then framing activists for drug offences. In the interview on the DVD Ové claims these scenes are based on personal experience.
The film is very successful in the way it includes politics without being too didactic. Political discussion stems from the drama – Colin’s involvement with the Black Power groups – as well as from reports on the radio or read aloud from newspapers. The meetings and talks are timed to reflect Tony’s situation (a speech on education and finding work follows Tony’s unsuccessful job interview). However, there are arguments within the group of activists that give more than one side to the debate, for instance when they disagree over whether all whites oppress or just those with economic power.
Ové sees Christianity – ‘That hippy cat, Jesus Christ Superstar’, as one character puts it – as an organ of repression. The black preacher (played by an actor addressing an unsuspecting genuine church audience) is heard promulgating the age-old black/white division. ‘Drive all black thoughts from your heart and replace them with good white holy thoughts’, he tells a real-life congregation of black churchgoers who show no reaction. As the American writer James Baldwin says in the other Ové film included on the DVD, slaves were kept ‘under the whip, the threat of the gun and the even more desperate and subtle threat of the bible’.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is its cinéma vérité/neo-realist style. It was shot on the streets of Ladbroke Grove (without obtaining permission) with the ‘extras’ either unsuspecting or often looking into the camera to see what’s going on. Ové claims it was whilst living in Rome that he discovered the films of Vittorio De Sica and Luis Buí±uel. The film even has a Buí±uelesque dream sequence where Tony sneaks into a colonial style house and murders a pig hiding under the bed clothes. Whether the pig symbolises English bacon or the police is not clear but then dreams seldom are.
The DVD comes with Horace Ové’s incredible documentary Baldwin’s Nigger, the filmed record of a brilliant speech James Baldwin gave in London in 1969 followed by an even better Q&A session. It informs Pressure not only through its discussion of the political issues but also as a document of the kind of militant meetings that are shown in the film. Baldwin tackles a variety of issues – economics, White liberalism, Christianity, usage of the terms negro, black, nigger, coloureds etc. with great wit and much humour. And by simply replacing Vietnam with Iraq and Detroit with Paris its relevance to today is obvious. These are two important films that are as valid now as they were thirty years ago.
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