FAITH OWOLABI reviews Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976) following its recent restoration by the BFI National Archive.
As one of the most influential forefathers of Black British film, it is no surprise that the British Film Institute (BFI) made the decision to celebrate Horace Ové this November with a 4K restoration of his seminal cinematic contribution, Pressure (1976). Hailed as the first feature-length film by a Black filmmaker in Britain, it holds an important place in discussions of 20th-century British cinema and representations of blackness on screen.
Pressure is a brazenly honest, thorough exploration of the struggles of Black individuals in Britain, multifaceted in the various modes through which it explores the intersections between culture, authority, and identity. It follows the disillusioning relationships and experiences of Tony (Herbert Norris), a 16-year-old, second-generation West Indian immigrant who has left school and is struggling to secure work. He occupies a singular position in his domestic and social sphere, the only one of his Trinidadian-born family to be born in Britain. The film’s structure is rapid and episodic as the audience is whisked between Tony’s personal adolescent struggles and the wider socio-political backdrop of racial violence, police brutality, and systemic oppression taking place in London.
In the opening scene, we are seated at the breakfast table, where Tony’s brother – Colin, a staunch Black Power activist – provokes him upon his refusal to eat traditional West-Indian foods. Unsatisfied with his mother’s assertion that ‘He not like us, he born here!’, Colin replies ‘So what? That make him a white man?’. This scene, under the guise of petty fraternal bickering, presents the audience with one of the film’s central questions: What does it mean to be both Black and British? What is involved in the construction of Black British identity, and what are its limits? Questions that are as pertinent to us now as they were 50 years ago.
Tony’s bold, unrepentant reply – ’What’s wrong with bacon and eggs, fish and chips, and Gary Glitter?’ (a quote which, regrettably, has not aged well) – reveals more than a deep appreciation for greasy breakfast foods and 70s glam rock singers. It exposes the contesting foundations upon which these two young black men extrapolate selfhood out of their blackness, juxtaposing epidermal hallmarks of identity with a more complex cultural caché of identity markers. The film skilfully teases out these complexities in its illustration of the West Indian experience in Britain, in which clashing identities are reflected even in the minutiae of food.
A scene which I found particularly striking, both visually and thematically, was during Tony’s decision to attend a nightclub with his white school friends as opposed to accepting his brother’s invitation to a Black Power meeting being held that same night. Pale reds, sordid pinks and oranges glow, lights flash, and the camera dizzyingly swings back and forth in motion with the throbbing crowd. The tone is one of ecstasy and escapism, with a hint of shame. The music swells and with it Tony’s realities melt and slip away, reverberating outwards through the speakers. The scene pulsates between the lively club and the more sobering speeches being given at the Black Power meeting, visually illuminating the psychological poles between which Tony is caught. During the course of the film, the audience, like Tony, feels these poles claustrophobically closing in, limiting space and freedom. Pressure, as the leitmotif of the reggae song reminds us, manifests in all forms: mental, physical, societal, economic, domestic… (the list goes on).
Where I believe Ové’s chef d’oeuvre is most commanding of such a title springs from its unique ability to so deftly illustrate the reality of living ‘Black’ in Britain, all whilst maintaining a childlike sensibility towards the cultural formation of identity in its chief protagonist. The political realism and the ‘coming-of-age’ quality of the film do not compete for space; rather, they beautifully coalesce, as Tony’s character progression is both a product of and shaped by the external forces surrounding him. Oscillating between moments of gravity, humour, pathos, and heart-warming togetherness, I believe that Ové captures the Black British experience with kaleidoscopic perspective. The air of the theatre was one of silent community; no one spoke, but through the air floated a feeling of unspoken acknowledgement as the screen held up a mirror to today’s Britain as much as it did the 20th century.
While the film’s chilling realism and raw depiction of multicultural Britain ostensibly halted its release by the BFI for three years, it is with a satisfying cyclicality that the film is now being restored and celebrated for those same reasons. Not only is this a testament to Ové’s lasting legacy in British cinema and Black storytelling, but also to the film’s longevity for audiences still able to resonate and find comfort in its themes. Whilst Ové, having sadly passed last month, is unable to witness the full-circle moment of Pressure’s return to the screen, its return remains necessary nonetheless as Britain must continue to learn not to shy away from its bleak history. A watershed moment in the inscription of Black filmmakers into the Canon, the restored version of Pressure has not been one to miss.
Pressure is available via the BFI Player and selected cinemas nationwide.
Featured image credit via the BFI: Herbert Norville in a promotional shot for the film.